CS Unplugged at the National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair

While the image of computing often brings to mind someone laboring at a computer, my career in computer science has taught me that computer science is all about ideas.
AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) has been holding its science and engineering fair, NAISEF, for 20 years.  NAISEF provides an important opportunity for students grades 5 through 12 to do hands-on research, apply their knowledge, and interact with professional role models in science, mathematics, and engineering.

This year, for the first time, an EXPO of booths representing educational, governmental and technological organizations were slated to participate. We thought it would be a perfect opportunity to introduce NCWIT and our resources to students, teachers, and parents in the Minnesota and Northern States areas.
While I looked forward to learning about this organization and region, I was a bit unsure how to engage these future scientists and engineers. After all, I would be standing next to an auditorium of interesting science projects. Well, Computer Science-in-a-Box turned out to be a fantastic way to connect with everyone.
Computer Science-in-a-Box: Unplug Your Curriculum is one of NCWIT’s Programs-in-a-Box.  The content is derived from “Computer Science Unplugged,” a curriculum developed at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, to teach computer science concepts without using computers.
CS Unplugged offers 20 activities that scale easily from small to large groups. I first saw it in action at SIGCSE 2009 and was delighted to discover that the activities are designed in such a way that everyone can understand – the concepts are subtle, not difficult.
At NAISEF I chose to demonstrate the activities on binary numbers and image representation, as they can be easily displayed on a table using colorful cards to visually draw people’s interest.
Inevitably, there came that fun moment that somebody went, “Oh!  I get it!” with a big smile on their face. The activities are very encouraging for people unfamiliar with computer sciences and are a way to engage people in computer science. No electricity needed!
John Ezell is the Academic Alliance Program Manager for NCWIT and a former computer scientist for Lucent.

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