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Engineering lab holds programming contest for middle- and high-schoolers

The MobiSocial Computing Lab, an industrial affiliate program in the School of Engineering, recently began accepting entries for its first-ever design competition for middle and high school students interested in developing mobile phone applications.

The lab will award two $1,000 scholarships, sponsored by Google, to the individual or team winners of the competition. Participants will be judged on a video advertisement for their mobile creation, which must be uploaded to both YouTube and the event’s Facebook page by May 20. The winners will be announced on June 3.

Monica Lam, professor of computer science and the Lab’s faculty director, said that she expects most entries will be mobile apps, but she emphasized that the contest is open to any kind of mobile experience.

“There are other things that you can do with your phones, and it’s just a matter of how you use a mobile device,” Lam said, referencing the virtual corkboard at Arrillaga Family Dining Commons. “You can use your phone to interact with the corkboard — that is an experience that is not just the app on your phone. It can be an app that interacts with other objects around you.”

Lam said that she and an industry professional will judge entries for one of the two scholarships. While Lam said that she is looking for designs that are “feasible within physical limits,” she emphasized prioritizing creativity and innovation over programming expertise.

“Programming is a means, not an end. You learn English grammar so that you can write creative things and express your thoughts. It’s the thoughts that are important and not the grammar itself,” Lam said. “But when people think about [computer science], all they are learning is the grammar — programming. It takes all the fun out of it.”

The second scholarship will be given to the participant or team whose entry receives the most likes through Google Wildfire, a social media marketing platform.

“High school students come up with different ideas, and I want them to be evaluated by other high school students because I want to hear what they think is really good,” Lam said. “We want them to come with ideas and evaluate themselves.”

Joy Kim, a doctoral student in computer science who has been involved in planning and running the contest, said that the entries will be judged on design instead of coding to attract students who might find programming intimidating.

“We kind of want to temporarily move [programming] aside for now and get them started with step one,” Kim said. “Just give them an idea, and emphasize you don’t sit down and start programming and stuff happens. You think about an idea, you go out and talk to people, you collaborate with others before you even start doing anything.”

Lam concurred that the contest was specifically designed to introduce computer science to students who may not want to start with computer or mobile programming.

“We might catch another group of people — we think especially girls will be interested in this,” Lam said. “There are just not enough girls going into computer science, and they would probably welcome that.”

Although only two teams will win scholarships, Lam expressed hope that all competitors will keep in contact with the MobiSocial Computing Lab, portraying the contest as an important step in the lab’s outreach to middle and high school students.

Last year, the lab hosted a six-week summer camp to introduce high school and college students to computer science through creating mobile devices. While students had expected programming to be “solitary and tedious,” according to Lam, many experienced computer science in a collaborative and interactive way.

One of the students at the camp, Sarah Nader ’15, came up with the idea of a design competition as a way to show other students the potential for creativity within computer science.

“Computer science people love computer science because it is a very useful tool for creating everything,” Lam said. “So that’s the message we want to get out. For the video competition, all you have to do is have some imagination, and that’s where it should start.”

Though Lam said that she expects “very few entries” in the contest this year, she predicted that student awareness and interest will grow over time.

“This is just the beginning, and hopefully we will keep growing this,” Lam said. “Once you have the competition, people will learn of people winning and be looking out for the second round.”

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