Cutting-edge program entices young software developers


September 21, 2007

Gabriela Cardenas and May Cheevasittirungruang watch intently as their Legos Mindstorm robot slowly maneuvers the corners of a cardboard maze. It pauses, lowers its “claws” and picks up a ball. It then turns and rolls through several more turns before emerging across the finish line.

Gabriela Cardenas, left, and May Cheevasittirungruang are two students in an after-school program taught by ASU in partnership with the Scottsdale Unified School District. The program teaches students the most cutting-edge techniques in software development.While it may look like play, the two freshmen at Coronado High School in Scottsdale have written the computer program that directs their robot through its moves. They are students in an after-school program taught by ASU in partnership with the Scottsdale Unified School District that is teaching students the most cutting-edge techniques in software development. Download Full Image

The process, called service-oriented computing (SOC), is visually based, and software development – called “composition” by those who teach it – involves linking together “packages” of existing code to create applications. SOC is being adopted by all the major computer companies, such as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Hewlett Packard, but typically it is not taught until graduate school.

That’s too late, say ASU computer science and engineering professors Wei-Tek Tsai and Yinong Chen.

“Students at the high school grade level can master this new technique and SOC, itself, can reinvigorate American student’s interest in computer science,” Tsai says. “We’re speeding up to a whole new gear in computer technology. We need an education system that’s moving at the same pace and in the same direction.”

That interest has been waning over the years. In 2006, undergraduate enrollment nationwide in computer studies was half of what it was in 2000 – from 15,958 to 7,798, according to the Computing Research Association.

The shortage of homegrown computer scientists has prodded the National Department of Education to become more focused on funding programs to help address this need. ASU and the Scottsdale Unified School District were awarded a $600,000 three-year grant through the department’s Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) to pilot the SOC class.

Chen and Tsai, along with ASU professor of curriculum and instruction Gary Bitter and Mitch Simmons, director of vocational, career and technical education for the school district, are principal investigators on the grant. The partnership to bring cutting-edge technology classes to

Scottsdale schools is a program that will be a component of SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center.

Chen says fixing the enrollment decline in computer science and engineering means refocusing what gets taught.

“Students see computer programming as labor-intensive and boring,” Chen says. “SOC changes that in a very dramatic way. Students no longer are writing lines of code. They are visually composing applications in a drag-and-click way that builds on what they have learned surfing the Internet.”

Tsai explains it this way: “It’s the difference between manufacturing a Lego piece – traditional coding – and building a structure by linking Lego pieces together – service-oriented computing.

“Say the task is to develop an online bookstore that takes orders from clients, processes those orders and places charges by using the services of remote banks. It would be very difficult to program such a system from scratch. However, if all the components can be found in service repository, the development task in SOC would be easier. This is how Web-based applications are being built.”

The dramatic differences between SOC and traditional computing call for different teaching approaches. These approaches, says Coronado computer science teacher Jeff Jordan, are perceived as “cool by high school students, because they are visual and the result is quicker. Students can create simulations and basic applications with minimal training. The immediate results they see from their work really motivates them and makes them want to learn more.”

The SOC class was sponsored by Science Foundation Arizona, and it also was offered to schoolteachers from different schools this summer. Seven out of the nine participating teachers wrote in the end-of-course evaluation that they would start the class in their schools.

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-5618