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Imagineering the Future

by Sarita Yardi last modified 2007-03-25 17:21

This summer we will be implementing a pilot “Introduction to Technology Design for Teenagers” class that will be modeled after college level HCI and HCC curricula. Our goal is to show computing to be a fun and appealing discipline by engaging teenagers in personally meaningful design activities that will both prepare and excite them towards future careers at companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. We will encourage teens to pick their own projects, such as redesigning a “Google interface for teens”, writing a Facebook application, or prototyping a new multiplayer game.

Over 87% of youth in America between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet and usage spikes from 60% in the sixth grade to 82% by seventh grade (Lenhart & Madden, 2005). Teens are actively creating blogs and webpages, posting original artwork, photography, stories or videos online and most teens have accounts on MySpace, Facebook, or Xanga. Teens also keep in touch through a vast array of communication tools, such as instant messaging, email, message boards, or chat rooms. The average teen instant messages with over thirty of his or her peers for three hours a week.

Despite their enthusiasm using these online tools and digital technologies, teens convey a significant lack of interest in computer science as an academic field or career path. Computer Science enrollment rates spiked in the late 1990s when the dot com bubble offered computing jobs that were exciting, cool, and lucrative, however, between 2000 and 2004, there has been a large drop in Computer Science enrollment. Recent studies show that this drop can be partially attributed to students’ perceptions of computing to be boring, asocial, and irrelevant to their lives. These perceptions, as well as their beliefs that the opportunities for good careers in computing were lost in the dot com bust or are being migrated to third world countries, has led to a crisis in the field of computing.

Our charge is to change these perceptions of computing by showing teens that there are careers and disciplines in computing that are exciting, innovative, and have real-world applications. We are building an online community in which teenagers can design and create new forms of technology while learning about the multiple components of computing that are involved in this process and how these skills might be useful for future computing related careers.

Our project is part of Georgia Computes, an NSF Broadening Participation in Computing alliance focused on increasing the number and diversity of computing students in the state of Georgia ( Georgia Computes is led by Professor Mark Guzdial in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and is affiliated with numerous Georgia-based organizations. The mission of Georgia Computes is to address computing throughout the pipeline from junior high school to undergraduate level students through workshops, design activities, summer camps, teacher education, and online communities. Within the overall mission of Georgia Computes, our project is aimed to take advantage of teens’ existing enthusiasm and engagement in emerging online environments to encourage them to consider computing related fields.

We are creating and implementing an “Introduction to HCI for Teenagers” curriculum in which teenagers will be taught basic Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) principles in the context of a design-based project. Our goal is to show computing to be a fun and appealing career option by engaging teens in personally meaningful design activities that will both prepare and excite them in the potential for future careers in the emerging and growing fields within computing and technology.

In Their Own Words                                                                                              

We conducted interviews and focus groups with local Atlanta area teens with two particular questions in mind:

1. What are teens’ current practices surrounding their use of computers, the Internet, and technology in their informal everyday lives?

2. What are teens’ perceptions of computer science and computing related fields and do they see themselves pursuing degrees or careers in these disciplines?

The purpose of exploring these two questions was to help us better understand and confirm our existing hypotheses about why students were not interested in computer science. We also sought to understand what they did for fun in these environments in order to help us design a solution that would meet them in the middle of these two spaces. Our findings reinforced many of our preexisting notions. We talked to 13 students overall, 8 girls and 5 boys. They ranged in age from 10-21 and most were in high school. They ranged in demographics, with the majority being white, middle class, female teens. As part of our goal to meet NSF’s target demographics, we plan to conduct our summer research with teens who are predominantly from an ethnic minority.

We found that teens perceived computer science to be difficult, boring, and anti-social. One participant stated that: “I don’t think I want to be a programmer because it’s too tedious and I don’t think I could do that, sitting in front of a screen all day, just looking at the typed stuff, I don’t do well.” Another said “I’m more of a people person.” A third stated that “It’s cool how… it’s amazing how it all works. I could never do anything like that.” When asked about a particular computing course, one participant declared that: “I didn’t really find it very fun because I mean they basically made us do boring stuff like draw big, small circles and like big circles and they didn’t exactly explain what was going to happen and stuff.”

However, not all of the participants professed a lack of ability or interest in computing. We asked one high school female, who was highly active in online environments, if she thought her peers could become more interested in the field and why. “I mean, most of the people I know have the capacity to know about computers as I do. I think a big part of it has to do with, um, like more of a social thing… I definitely see the people in the technology group as being anti-social when they were younger…. Now they’re just as social as everybody else because in high school everybody’s pretty much accepted. But in lower school the computer geeks are not…. there’s all sorts of big movements about females in technology and scholarship and all that and that’s really great that people are doing that but when I think about my friends who are the ones that have the capacity to learn really fast and could easily do this, they just choose not to, it has to be on a smaller scale, a required computer course at school, or an introduction to all the neat things on the web”

We also found that many of the female participants had strong perceptions of computing to be a male dominated field. One advanced student who had been the only female in a high school computer science course stated that: “[The boys] were really nice. Well, it’s also because most of the guys were dating my best friends…. Well, yeah, they can’t be mean to me because of their girlfriends… They were very nice, very sweet, when I went into [Advanced Placement Computer Science], they were like “You’re in AP?” and I was like “Yes, I am.” She also declared that “[CS] is hard… I mean it’s not anything easy, when I did AP, I was struggling within the first three weeks. The boys, they are fine, they can program, what would take me like 2 months to do, they can do in 3 weeks.” Another student, a male undergraduate, was asked about his perceptions of women in technical fields: “Well, I think women are perfectly capable of doing well in [Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering]. However, they just don’t come here. What makes Biomed so much more attractive than, say, CS? I think they are equally capable… but CS and ECE are stereotypically males, male-dominated professions. I don’t think there is a glass ceiling, it’s just that women don’t decide to come here.”

Many of the high school girls demonstrated highly proficient and advanced understanding of online tools and environments, but were still very fearful of computing, programming, and the associated nature of those disciplines. When asked what they were good at on the computer, they stated: “You know, like use FaceBook, check your email, use iTunes…. And like Microsoft Word and PPT.” However, when asked about computer science specifically, they chimed in: “I don’t know of [any girl] that’s like really good with it.” While our findings reinforced much of what we already knew about teens’ perceptions of computing, they also offered us a much more detailed and in-depth understanding of their perceptions from their own eyes. We were able to learn about what environments they did enjoy, what they found fun, and what paths might be useful for us to lead them to become more interested in computing.

Redefining Computing                                                                                         

Based on our findings, we are designing an “Introduction to Design for Teenagers” curriculum that will be loosely modeled on Georgia Tech’s MS HCI and HCC PhD programs. In our model, we will encourage teens to pick their own project, such as redesigning a “Google interface for teens”, writing a Facebook application, or prototyping a new multiplayer game. We are not emphasizing a specific technical skill but are instead looking to show teens that the field of computing is relevant to their lives. Participants will be encouraged to choose projects that are important and meaningful to them. Students who have backgrounds in programming will be encouraged to choose projects that incorporate their skills into their design process, such as using a Facebook API to design a novel social networking application. Students who have little or no technical background and may feel intimidated in this environment will be encouraged to explore projects that allow them to explore a social, human, or service oriented approach to technology, such as designing a health related application for a grandparent with a particular illness.

Our project is designed to plant a seed of interest in teens in the role of computing in their lives by meeting them where they are at in terms of comfort and familiarity using computers and technology. They will be able to upload their projects to an online community that consists of their peers, graduate HCI and HCC students at Georgia Tech, and a general public audience. This online environment is designed to foster a sense of importance, relevance, and authenticity in their activities by linking them to a community of researchers and professionals who are implementing related real-world applications.

We’re Hiring! Preparing Teens for the Jobs of the Future                               

Our goals are to encourage teenagers to pursue the numerous careers that are emerging in today’s expanding, Internet-based, global economy. Georgia Tech’s HCC PhD and MS in HCI programs address the need for highly skilled, specialized academics to meet this demand. Similarly, the undergraduate Threads and Media Computation programs are answering the same call for students who are skilled in not just technical domains, but in the social, user-centered, and creative aspects of computing.

This project will expose students to these skills at an even earlier age, during their junior high and high school years. We want students who are currently at this age to be well-prepared, and more importantly, excited and enthusiastic about pursuing the computing jobs of the future. A recent visit to the career opportunities websites at Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft reveal that there is, in fact, a demand for these skills. Posted job opportunities include titles such as: Web Specialist, Software Engineer, User Experience Design, Lead Animator, Game Designer, and Product Designer. These jobs require skills that include being able to:

·   Articulate and champion innovative design approaches.

·   Brainstorm and refine interface concepts with Product Management & Engineering.

·   Experience developing Internet products and technologies.

·   Demonstrated experience in gathering design requirements into a product vision.

·   Develop innovative new products that millions of people will find useful.

·   Create even more relevant, more useful, and faster products for our users.

The students we interviewed similarly expressed interest in working at companies like Facebook, Google, and YouTube, perceiving the culture to be somehow different than those in traditional software companies. “I’m not sure. I decided in like 7th grade I wanted to work for Google. Just because I love the company’s philosophy and they know everything about me and it kind of scares me how much they know about me… they save everything. They’ve been really good about their policies so far when asked to give up their information in not doing that, but still…”

Through our “Introduction to HCI for Teenagers” curriculum, our online environment that exposes teenagers to HCI and HCC students as role models who are doing related, interesting research projects, and the partnerships within the greater Georgia Computes project, we hope to excite students to consider these career options in their future. We want to prepare them to walk into any job interview, with Yahoo!, Google, or Microsoft, and have the technical, social, and communicative skills to command any job opportunity they want.

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