DARPA seeks to shape young minds

DARPA launches a program to interest grade school students in computer science careers.

The Defense Department’s research and development agency has started an initiative to increase the number of computer science graduates in the United States. The three-year, $14.2 million dollar program will use a variety of online tools and educational approaches to guide interested middle and high school students into pursuing computer science careers.

Managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the computer science-science, technology, engineering and mathematics (CS-STEM) program’s goal is to expand the talent pool of applicants available for jobs to support secure DOD networks and to accelerate computer science innovation.

The interest in increasing the number of CS graduates has national security implications, DARPA officials said. According to the agency, since 2002, the number of U.S. college graduates with computer science or related degrees has dropped by 58.5 percent. To reverse these numbers, CS-STEM will focus on creating interesting activities and opportunities for middle and high school students that will increase in complexity as they progress through their education.

CS-STEM is built around three components: a distributed online community, an online robotics academy, and an extracurricular online community for students. The first section, known as “Teach Ourselves,” developed by the University of Arizona, will be a distributed online community of students and teachers. This environment is intended to introduce students to the knowledge economy, which is a matrix where students can track their progress through a variety of subjects.

The second component is the Fostering Innovation through Robotics Exploration, (FIRE) online robotics academy. Developed by Carnegie Mellon University, it will allow students to sharpen their skills at solving complex problems by educating them with algorithmic thinking skills, engineering processes, math, and programming knowledge. DARPA officials said FIRE is intended to significantly improve the educational value of robotics competitions by developing online cognitive tutors and simulation tools designed to use robots and programming to teach major mathematics concepts.

The final part of CS-STEM is an extracurricular online community for middle and high school students. It will use ongoing, age-appropriate practice, activities and competitions, educational content, discussion boards, mentoring and role models to develop skills and foster interest in CS-STEM careers. Collaborative activities, puzzles, games, webisodes, workshops and other content will be used to attract students to the site on a daily basis.

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