Professor Engages Local Youth in Computer Programming


Electrical engineer Michelle Hruby spoke to North Middle School students about the importance of computer programming in engineering before the group did a drone demonstration.

Associate professor of physics Dr. Drew Alton received a NASA Project Innovation Grant from the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium to partner with Harrisburg North Middle School in order to bring computer programming, robots and drones to middle school students.

The objective of these grants is to provide seed funding for meritorious projects that align with NASA and SD Space Grant Consortium goals and that show potential to develop into long-term, sustainable programs.

Alton and Augustana physics students will help instruct more than 300 middle school students during the 2015-16 academic year.

"This program will engage students in hands on programming projects at the middle school and undergraduate level," Alton said. "It will encourage collaboration across school boundaries and encourage mentoring experiences for undergraduates and K‐12 students. Our goal will be to increase student interest in programing and increase the availability by using that interest to encourage schools to offer more programing courses."

The project includes a sixth grade unit on programing LEGO EV3 robots, and an eighth grade unit programing drones, and an Augustana Society of Physics Students (SPS) group will learn to program both the robot and the drones.

Plans to continue the project for at least three years and to put a computer programming curriculum in place at the high school are also in the works.

"Our hope is to garner interest from our middle school program that would ultimately materialize into an advanced programming course at the high school, potentially focusing on introductory languages such as Python and/or Java," Alton said.

Additionally, Alton hopes this program, strategically placed in middle school at a critical time for capturing student interest in STEM, will encourage more females to pursue careers in the sciences.

Alton says the program is still getting off its feet. The first sessions at North Middle School in Harrisburg began with a talk from Michelle Hruby, an electrical engineer working for Rockwell Collins, who spoke about the importance of computer programming in engineering while Alton spoke about its importance in the sciences. 

In addition, middle school teachers spent a Saturday trying their hands at programming the lego robots. They are developing a curriculum and preparing to evaluate how much the students learned, but also how much the students enjoyed the experience.

"I'm grateful to Nancy Weidenbach, Leah Howes, and Julie Alton," Alton said. "They and other teachers are the ones putting in lots of effort."