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UIC CS students help Chicago Public School students explore computer science

Chen (standing, left) and Tse (standing, right) instruct students at Jones Prep

UIC Computer Science students Lydia Tse and Clark Chen spent part of their spring semester at Jones College Prep, mentoring students in the school’s Exploring Computer Science classes, as part of their CS 398 undergraduate research project. The high school computer science class is a recent graduation requirement for Chicago Public School (CPS) high school students, and Tse and Chen taught cybersecurity and robotics in three sections of teacher Cindy Lilagan’s honors classes.

Tse heard about the program after reading about Dale Reed’s involvement in bringing computer science instruction to CPS schools. Reed, a clinical professor and director of undergraduate recruitment at UIC, was interested in seeing how high school students would relate to and understand more advanced computer science curriculum. Chen has served as a teaching assistant (TA) for Reed for four semesters. Tse and Chen were accepted by Lilagan and Jones Prep to teach the course.

Chen said the use of robotics could teach the students cybersecurity concepts: when a student writes code, they can spoof each other’s robots, intercept and break one another’s encryption signals, and use Caesar’s cipher, one of the simplest and most widely known encryption methods, where each plain text letter is replaced by another set number or position down the alphabet.

“The students knew some of this already, but we also went over how things are hacked in their social life—how advertising companies get their information online, for example,” Chen said.

Upcoming lessons would involve battles between the student’s robots.

With CPS classes moved online due to Covid19, the future of Tse and Chen’s involvement in the program for this semester is uncertain. They finished designing the entire curriculum, but some of the material—including the robot battles—cannot easily translate online.

“Miss Lilagan said it’s possible to host a Google meetup or hangout, but some of CPS online learning is up in the air. Some students do not have access,” Tse said.

For Tse, helping expose high schoolers to computer science is a passion. Tse was on the path to becoming a doctor, and holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Case Western University. After shadowing a few doctors, she had a change of heart, just before graduation.

Tse discovered computer science through her younger sister, and decided to return to school for a second bachelor’s degree, after working with Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that teaches women coding and computer skills (UIC also offers a Girls Who Code at UIC Club). Now, Tse is working on a dual bachelor’s/master’s degree in computer science at UIC.

“I’m at a crossroads right now. I’m very interested in a PhD in learning sciences intermixed with CS,” Tse said. “I’m also interning as a data engineer, which is very interesting as well.”

Tse is working with Reed and PhD candidates at UIC, getting a sense for what life as a PhD student would be like. Her internship is with Synchrony Financial, where she is developing a tool for their enterprise data lake. (Both data lakes and data warehouses are widely used for storing big data, but a data lake is a large pool of raw data, whereas information held in a data warehouse is structured, and has already been processed for a specific purpose.) Tse is helping the transition to data lakes for the company. She worked previously as a summer immersion program instructor with Girls Who Code.

“It is so important that students, especially high schoolers, get exposed to computer science,” Tse said.

Chen, a junior, is hoping to work with the Jones students, even in a volunteer capacity, perhaps in the fall. He returned over UIC’s spring break to his family’s home in Taiwan, and will complete the school year from overseas.

Although he’s been a TA for two years at UIC, Chen has found the experience at Jones to be enlightening.

“You can teach hard material in an easier and more understandable way. Even the most difficult material can be taught more simply,” Chen said.

Chen is looking forward to his senior year at UIC, and hopes to work as a software engineer after graduation.

Learn more about CPS’ Explore Computer Science program.