Saturday, 10 September 2011

Tracking young web developers

Every summer, we run a range of educational outreach programs designed to get students of all ages excited about technology. Our Computer Science Summer Institute (CSSI) is focused around incoming college freshmen who are considering a computer science major, particularly those groups traditionally underrepresented in the field. Last year the program was so successful that 24 of 29 students declared a major in Computer Science. So this year we decided to run CSSI twice. For each session, we invited nearly 30 young developers with little to no prior programming experience to the Googleplex for an intense three-week course in web application development. Unlike traditional introductory computer science programs, which are largely theoretical, CSSI enables students to gain a better understanding of software engineering through immediate participation. The goal is to give the students the tools they need to create exciting technical solutions now, which in turn gives them the confidence to take their ideas and turn them into reality. We wanted to equip students with a comprehensive toolset to tackle the world of web and mobile applications. In the first two weeks of the program we introduced students to App Inventor for Android, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, Django and App Engine. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but the students far surpassed our expectations and demanded more. In the final week of the program, they built some spectacular web applications, inspiring us with their passion and their enthusiasm for experimentation. They wrote online games, embedded Google Calendar's self-scheduler onto their websites and built blogging services. Some even began exploring the nitty-gritty details of computer graphics. Every one of our 56 students had the satisfaction of developing a publicly-available service on the web, hosted on Google’s servers. Moreover, the development process was deeply social: we emphasized and facilitated group work, helping students build a network of peers with a shared passion for technology. Google engineers served as mentors, and when we discovered that the students were so excited about their lessons that they continued to work on their projects in the evenings, mentors teamed up with them on Google+ Hangouts, using video conferencing and Google Docs to debug programs collaboratively online. While both sessions of CSSI 2011 are now over, we’ll be accepting applications for the 2012 sessions early next year, so stay tuned! Our goal with our education programs isn’t just to strengthen the study of computer science—we also want to enable rewarding collaboration among Google’s engineers and usability researchers, educators and the community at large. CSSI is one way to show young people how valuable teamwork can be and encourage them to take that spirit of cooperation back with them to their personal and academic lives. How do we know we’re on the right track? Not even three days after the end of the first session, a student posted the following message on Google+: “Five weeks before school starts, anyone interested in starting up a new web project?” She had six eager recruits within the hour.

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