Congdon Park Field Trip - Learning about Computer Science
On Thursday, May 2, a second grade class from Congdon Park Elementary
in Duluth, MN visited UMD’s
Department of Computer Science’s SIVE
Lab. SIVE stands for Simulation and Interaction in Virtual
Environments and is operated by Dr. Pete Willemsen. The purpose of the
field trip was to teach the 2nd graders about what computer science is
like and what we as computer scientists do.
Specifically, seven stations were setup in the SIVE Lab to provide
exposure, engaging experiences, and an education to the 2nd graders to
a variety of computer science related topics.
Each station focused on a small and specific subset of computer
science ranging from what a computer is, how we represent the alphabet
on a computer using binary numbers, how computers can be programmed
using Scratch, to how we use computers to help
scientists. Additionally, we sought volunteers from the CS graduate
program and the CS undergraduates to ensure a diverse and even mix of
cultures and genders. This was purposeful in that we wanted to make
sure the 2nd graders interacted with an inclusive and diverse group of
students. In particular, I wanted to make sure each student observed
a broad spectrum of people (men and women) being computer scientists.
Below is a summary of the stations that we prepared. The second grade
class was split into 7 groups of 3-4 students each. Each group spent
12 minutes at each station interacting with the students, equipment,
- Station 1: What is a computer? - Students learned about the
different parts that make up a computer including its memory, its long
term storage, its processing ability, and how it communicates with
- Station 2: How is a computer built? - Students learned how to take a
computer apart and then put it back together.
- Station 3: How do computers work? - At this station, the students
learned how computers only use the binary number system (0s and 1s)
to represent the world. The students learned about the binary
representation of the alphabet and spelled their names using binary
- Station 4: LEGO Scratch Programming - In this exercise, the students
completed the construction of a LEGO alligator that uses motors and
sensors from the LEGO WeDo system. They programmed the motors with
software, using the Scratch programming environment. The program they
wrote had the alligator bite a person’s finger when the finger got
too close to the alligator’s mouth.
- Station 5: Arduino RGB Light - At this station, the students used
a very small computer (an Arduino) to construct a small multi-colored
RGB (Red, Green, Blue) LED that can be programmed to change colors. Students programmed the color of
the light with a software program, and downloaded the program to the Arduino. They made observations about
the color they saw as compared to the color that was printed on a handout they were given.
The aim of this exercise was to show students the interaction between hardware and
software and teach them how colors are represented.
- Station 6: Sun City, or Gosh, it’s hot! - At this station, the
students used a physical mock-up of a small city, simulating the sun
with a bright heat lamp. The students made observations to determine
the warm and cool spots of the fake city. Students then used our
environmental simulation software to make the same observations using
a computer program.
- Station 7: Walk on Mars/Haptic Demo - This station presented a
combined demo showing parts of the Virtual Reality system being built
Haptic Terrain Project. The
students were prepped with the mission of being the first astronauts
to go to Mars to explore Martian terrain. As part of that mission,
they would first train in a simulation of being on
Mars. Using NASA data from the HiRISE Satellite we generated a 3D, immersive virtual reality experience taking each student to the Noctis Labrynthis (Night Maze) on Mars. After
learning how planetary scientists collect specific data for the
structure of Mars, we talked to them about how scientists use
computer science and computer programs to study the red planet
virtually. Each student spent several minutes using the
virtual reality setup in the lab to stand on Mars and walk around the
Noctis Labrynthis. While students waited for their turn, they used a haptic device to explore how
we can use computer programmed robots to help us feel objects that are “in” the computer
with the motivation being that if a scientist wanted to feel one of
the rocks they saw on Mars, this might be one way they would achieve such a goal.
The primary goal of the field trip was simple. Teach the students a
little about what it means to be a computer scientist. Our focus, much
like the lab’s focus, was interdisciplinary in nature, hi-lighting
areas where computer scientists work collaboratively with researchers
and scientists to provide greater understanding and knowledge about