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Launch-IT exposes area kids to computer science careers

These two Dieruff High School students are taking advantage of Lehigh's new Launch-IT program.

Lehigh has received its second major grant in four years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help area middle- and high-school students prepare for college.

The new project, called Launch-Information Technology, or Launch-IT, is also aimed at attracting more underrepresented minorities and more women to the study of computer science.

Through Launch-IT, about 70 students in grades 7-12 in the Lehigh Valley come to Lehigh one Saturday each month and for three weeks during the summer to learn about computer programming, software, robotics and other information-technology subjects. The first summer session will begin July 23.

The students take part in laboratory activities, work with state-of-the-art educational software, and receive tutoring from Lehigh faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. The students, who are grouped by age into three teams, also go on field trips. On Saturday, May 12, they toured the Lehigh Valley International Airport.

Launch-IT, which started in March, is a three-year project backed by $1 million in funding through NSF’s Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program. Launch-IT is also supported by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA).

Graduate students in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Education who take part in Launch-IT also receive research stipends from NSF.

Hoping to change perspectives

Glenn Blank, professor of computer science and engineering and principal investigator on the project, says Launch-IT seeks to address a paradoxical situation: At a time when more and more children are growing up with cell phones, Internet chat rooms, iPods and other applications of information technology (IT), fewer are choosing to pursue careers in IT fields.

“There’s a real problem in computer science today,” says Blank. “Nationwide, we have seen a recent decline in college enrollments in the subject. This drop has been more acute for women than for men. Ten years ago, women made up 25 to 35 percent of enrollments. Today, that has fallen to about 15 to 25 percent, and less than 10 percent at Lehigh and many other leading universities.”

The percentage of minority groups in computer science is also dropping, says Blank, with the trend taking shape as children pass from middle school to high school.

“In the Lehigh Valley,” says Blank, “all kids—male and female, black, white and Hispanic—take IT courses in middle school. In high school, however, the course is offered as an elective, and you start seeing IT classrooms made up mostly of boys, with relatively few girls and minorities.”

Why are students losing interest in IT subjects and career opportunities?

“There are several reasons,” says Blank. “These include the belief that computer science jobs are going overseas. But this is a mistaken assumption—our economy is so IT-oriented that we need more IT people.

“Also, kids are not aware of the career opportunities they’re missing out on. Or, they think that computer programming is an occupation in which you sit by yourself in front of a computer all day being a nerd. But that’s not the reality—most software engineers work in teams to solve real-world problems.”

“Middle- and high-school kids,” says Melodie Kent, Launch-IT program director, who is completing an M.S. in mechanical engineering and beginning a doctorate in education at Lehigh, “use software all the time but don’t picture themselves in IT occupations or see themselves as the person behind the invention.

“We’re hoping to change that misperception.”

On the shoulders of STAR and STEM

Launch-IT is building on the success of two similar educational outreach programs at Lehigh—the S.T.A.R. Academies and the Lehigh Valley Partnership for STEM Education, or LV STEM, with STEM signifying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

LV STEM, for which Blank is also principal investigator, was started in 2003 with a recently renewed NSF grant of $1.2 million. Through LV STEM, Lehigh sends faculty and students to Lehigh Valley schools to teach lessons in grades 4-12.

S.T.A.R. has for 18 years matched Lehigh students one-on-one with Lehigh Valley students in grades 4-12. Every other Saturday at Lehigh, 70 to 80 Lehigh students tutor their younger counterparts in math, English, science and other subjects. S.T.A.R.’s director, Henry Odi, the executive director of academic outreach and special projects at Lehigh, is co-principal investigator for Launch-IT and LV STEM. Odi and Blank are also co-directors of the two projects.

Many S.T.A.R. students, says Odi, have completed high school and gone on to college, including some to Lehigh. All seven high-school seniors in this year’s class of S.T.A.R. students have all been accepted to college.

Participation in Launch-IT by students in grades 7-12 is voluntary, not mandatory; thus the new program, like S.T.A.R. and LV STEM, stresses hands-on learning, team-building and real-world projects, say Odi and Blank.

“The key to the success of this new program, or of any K-12 educational endeavor, is for the activities to be interactive, exciting and relevant,” says Odi. “Launch-IT will not last long if kids have to sit through lectures or demonstrations.”

Launch-IT will give middle- and high-school students access to the latest technologies, at Lehigh and at participating schools, says Blank. These include mobile robots, robots that can smell, flash animation, Java technology and more. Students will learn computer programming, hone math skills with the game “24,” and take part in the Jason Project.

Chris Janneck, a graduate student in computer science, works with a middle school child in the Mars Yard at Harrison-Morton Middle School.

Launch-IT students will also use a Web-based interface to operate robots remotely at a “Mars Yard” built just over a year ago with LV STEM funds in a basement at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown.

“Thanks to the interface,” says Blank, “kids will be able to send commands to the robots, by computer and from a distance, to tell them what to do.”

A “mission control center” is being built on the second floor of Harrison-Morton, says Blank, and the Mars Yard robots are being replaced with newer, more robust models.

Other co-principal investigators in Launch-IT are Kent; Lynn Columba, associate professor in the College of Education and a specialist in the teaching of mathematics; William Pottenger, former assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh and now associate research professor at Rutgers University; and Jean Russo, research scientist in the Center for Social Research, who is also project evaluator.

Other co-principal investigators for the LV STEM Project are Columba; Gary DeLeo, professor of physics; Keith Schray, professor of chemistry; Susan Szczepanski, associate professor of mathematics, Duke Perreira, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, Jennifer Swann, associate professor of biological sciences; Terry Hart, adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics; and Russo, who is projector evaluator.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, May 22, 2007

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