ike most students, Rian Walker felt nervous when she came to Mississippi State University as a freshman in 2013. The Ocean Springs native moved into her dorm room, ready to tackle the next challenge in her life and pursue a career in computer science. But before she began her own academic journey, she had another obstacle to face—introducing computer science to a group of 14 middle-school girls from across Mississippi.
Walker was one of the creators of the first Bulldog Bytes camp, a computer-science camp for girls funded by the National Center for Women and Information Technology and two MSU alumni, Doug Marchant and Emily Epps. She taught the campers basics of computer science, how to program robots and ways to tailor technology to their interests—whether it was biology, music therapy, psychology or another field.
“They all had so many ideas, but they just didn’t have the same resources in computer science back where they were from,” Walker recalled. “At the end, we had a presentation day and their parents came. They were excited to show off what they had made. I could see I was changing their perceptions of computer science. That touches you in a way.”
When Walker graduates in May with a degree in software engineering, she will begin working as a tech analyst at Bank of America’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. As she begins her career, she will fill one of approximately 530,000 open computing jobs nationwide
In an effort that includes many Mississippi State academic units and faculty members, the university is working to fill the growing demand for computer-science professionals, increase the diversity of students and employees in the field, and develop connections that will help Mississippi keep pace with 21st-century workforce demands.
“It’s interesting to work with kids from different backgrounds and see how they respond, how they interact with each other. I think it’s really useful for us to be able to explain the concepts to them.”
~ Darius Sandford
One of those helping advance Mississippi computer-science efforts is Sarah Lee, an assistant clinical professor in the Bagley College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. She came to MSU in 2011 after a 19-year information technology career at FedEx.
Since joining the faculty ranks, Lee has been involved with many initiatives to expose K-12 students in underserved communities to computer science, while also shaping the education of current MSU students as her department’s director of undergraduate studies.In 2016, Lee received a National Science Foundation grant to create the Mississippi Alliance for Women in Computing, an initiative that strengthens existing programs and creates new opportunities for young women in computing across the state. The alliance works to develop interest in computer science among women, retain them in computing degree programs and assist them with the transition to the workforce.
Among the many facets of the program, students in middle school, high school and community college will soon be eligible for funding to start a chapter of the Mississippi Alliance for Women in Computing at their schools. Each chapter is required to do some sort of outreach in its community, such as using robots to teach programming to elementary students or helping senior citizens learn to use smart devices.
“I think to really make these initiatives work, we have to have people across the state involved,” Lee said. “It has to be a groundswell effort. We need the students we’re trying to reach to step up. They may be in school and like computing, but they don’t know the girl over there also likes computing. If they can create an organization there, they can offer something in their community.”
Walker, who met Lee through the Aspirations in Computing Scholarship program, remembers well what it was like to be interested in computers at a young age. She had a home computer growing up that she used to play educational games. When MySpace was popular, she used HTML to design her profile page on the social-media platform.
“Pretty much everyone I knew in middle school knew some type of HTML because they were all on MySpace copying and pasting profile layouts,” Walker said. “It was important to have a good layout.”
However, early in high school, Walker said it felt like it was not “cool” for girls to be into computers, which dampened her interest. But she said by her junior year, she decided not to care whether it was cool or not and continued to pursue computer science. By the time she was at Mississippi State, she was teaching middle-school girls how to create photo filters like the ones they use on Instagram.
“Instead of clicking a button and making it happen, we made it happen ourselves,” Walker said. “I try to show them something they use every day and what goes on behind the scenes of those apps.”
The planned outreach opportunities she uses are part of Lee’s research-backed belief that new computer-science students gain skills and self-confidence in their abilities when they explain computing concepts to others, which increases retention among students. With that in mind, students in her freshman-level introductory course spend time at a Starkville elementary school teaching students about computer programming.
This October, Lee and her first-year students spent a day at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary in Starkville teaching computer concepts to second-grade students with robotic “fish” that were hooked up to computers.
The younger students quickly took to the machines as excitement filled the room. “I’ve never seen a robot before!” one student yelled. “Mine’s doing the moonwalk!” another said after figuring out how to make the device move. Later, the same second graders came to Mississippi State for a field trip to learn more about computer science.
As Lee intended, the second graders weren’t the only ones learning something. Darius Sandford, a freshman software engineering major from Greenwood, was one of the Bulldog students helping that day and had the opportunity to spread his appreciation for computer science.
“Our industry sponsors see these students are gaining skills that are so desperately needed in the workforce. That’s why they support what we’re doing. We have to plant the seeds early in students so we can see them grow, each and every year.”
~ Vemitra White
“It’s interesting to work with kids from different backgrounds and see how they respond, how they interact with each other,” Sandford said. “I think it’s really useful for us to be able to explain the concepts to them.”
In addition to her computer-science outreach efforts, Lee collaborates with faculty members in Mississippi State’s College of Education to help future teachers learn ways to incorporate computer science and cybersecurity concepts into their classrooms. This spring, Joe Crumpton, a fellow assistant clinical professor, will co-teach a new class designed for education majors on the topic. The course is part of a new computer-science education curriculum and licensure path being developed by Lee and College of Education faculty members Jessica Ivy and Dana Franz.
Also helping Mississippi State teach K-12 students about computer science and other technical fields is Vemitra White, outreach director for the Bagley College of Engineering. She serves as co-principal investigator with Lee on the NSF grant for the Mississippi Alliance for Women in Computing. She assists with the Bulldog Bytes camps and GenCyber, a National Security Agency-funded camp that introduces students to computer science and cybersecurity.
White also oversees the annual Mississippi BEST robotics competition, which brings hundreds of students from across the state to Mississippi State. The competition, and other Bagley outreach initiatives, have received significant support from industry sponsors, which White says is a sign they instill valuable skills.
“Our industry sponsors see these students are gaining skills that are so desperately needed in the workforce,” White said. “That’s why they support what we’re doing. We have to plant the seeds early in students so we can see them grow, each and every year.”
Both White and Lee recognize not every student will major in computer science, but they do try to ensure students understand that computers will affect almost any job they might have. The students who do major in one of Mississippi State’s computer science and engineering programs leave the university well prepared to enter the workforce and, in many cases, with multiple job offers.
One area where Mississippi State graduates are in particularly high demand is the field of cybersecurity. The university recently launched a master’s degree in cybersecurity and operations. Mississippi State also participates in the NSF CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, which completely funds participating students’ education in return for working in public service cybersecurity jobs.
Mississippi State produces the third largest number of CyberCorps students among universities, nationally.
In addition to ensuring government agencies have a well-trained cybersecurity workforce, the program enhances research and knowledge in the field. More than 70 peer-reviewed publications have been published by graduate and undergraduate Mississippi State Scholarship for Service students. In August, Mississippi State announced a $3.11 million grant for additional program support.
“Cybersecurity is an increasingly important component of our national security. Mississippi State has established itself by preparing students to be well-trained cybersecurity professionals,” U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran said in a release announcing the funding. “I am pleased the university has secured funding to continue this program.”
For approximately 20 years, Mississippi State has worked to build its leading cybersecurity research and education programs. The university is certified as a Center of Academic Excellence in both Information Assurance Education and Research, as well as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations. MSU is the only university in the state with all three designations and is one of only 16 schools in the nation with the Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations designation.
“A lot of companies and government agencies come here to recruit because of the cybersecurity strengths our students have,” Lee said. “Our graduates are not only getting positions in regional companies but they’re competitive for jobs at places like Facebook, Google, Intel and Amazon. In the last couple of years, we’ve had those companies come here. I think that speaks to the quality of students we’re producing.”
Mississippi State’s Research and Curriculum Unit develops statewide computer-science curricula
In partnership with the Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi State’s Research and Curriculum Unit is helping implement computer-science curricula across the state.
The partnership, which includes a wide variety of stakeholder input, is part of Mississippi’s Computer Science for All initiative. Now in its second year, Computer Science for Mississippi has implemented elementary-, middle- and high school-level computer science curricula in 52 pilot school districts.
Shelly Hollis, who serves as the Computer Science for Mississippi coordinator at RCU, said the curricula are designed to be taught by teachers without a computer science background and taken by students who may be new to the concepts. The unit conducts professional development for those implementing the courses in their schools. The courses teach problem-solving, coding, data science, robotics, digital citizenship, career exploration and keyboarding, among other topics.
“Industry officials said they needed employees to be able to problem solve, think critically and be comfortable with failure,” Hollis said. “We heard that over and over again. We really wanted the curriculum to focus on those areas and build foundational knowledge.”
Schools participating in the program are encouraged to adapt their lessons to the regions where they are located. For example, schools districts near automotive plants can highlight the ways computers are used in automotive manufacturing, or school districts in the delta can showcase how computers are used in agriculture.
“Throughout the middle-school course, students are doing career exploration and looking at how whatever career they are interested in uses computers,” Hollis said. “One of the things we want students to realize is regardless of the career you’re thinking about, computers are going to impact your job.”
The RCU recently received a $700,000 National Science Foundation grant for Computer Science for Mississippi, which will help develop teacher endorsements in the discipline and additional content support.
As the pilot program continues, Hollis and others will continue soliciting feedback from those teaching and taking the courses. The goal is a final curriculum that can be rolled out statewide, helping ensure all Mississippi students are equipped for high-tech jobs.
For more on Computer Science for Mississippi, visit www.cs4ms.org.