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Computer Science Guidance for Middle and High School Students

Author:Aracely Moreno is a rising freshman at Harvard University. She plans on pursuing a

Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and Biomedical Engineering or Neuroscience.

Here is Aracely’s recommendations to students who want to transform their interest in computer science into a life-long calling in an increasingly technological world.

For Middle Schoolers

How to help middle schoolers start thinking and dreaming about their future in the computer science field?

Students wishing to pursue computer science have the fortunate ability to get started from the comfort of their homes. There are two general approaches for exploring the field: following online courses, utilizing tutorials to create beginner projects. Before you do that, however, consider what computer science means to you at this moment. As society continues to depend more on technology, computer science interacts with distinct areas like medicine or communication: providing instructions for 3D organ printing to creating social media apps to connect people across the world. It is not only essential to learn to code but to explore what communities you want to assist with your technical skills in the future. To conduct this exploration, volunteering at organizations, even those that you may not be interested in at first, are valuable experiences while simultaneously helping people in your community.

What skills sets they need to develop?

First and foremost, creativity​ is an endearing skill or ability that a person pursuing computer​ science should have. One can memorize the pattern of hundreds of algorithms or even programming languages, but, ultimately, one needs to interpret the most efficient, creative solution to solve problems. Also, this creativity may foster ideas for independent projects that can be beneficial for an array of opportunities: hackathons, self-enrichment to add to a resume or be the foundation for a start-up idea. Everyone can learn to code in time; to distinguish yourself in a technical career, you need to engage with various communities with different levels of knowledge in computer science. Therefore, mindfulness or empathy​ towards others is​ essential to maintain a productive and favorable environment for everyone in the workplace.

What subjects they should be interested in studying to pursue their interests in a good computer science program in high school or college?

Programming classes are ideal; however, computer science is more than entering lines of code to solve a problem. Given the problem-solving mindset needed to complete projects, engineering classes would also be helpful. These hands-on courses would allow students to practice trouble-shooting, as would be common in programming. Moreover, other careers in computer science involve data analytics and project management. Students can develop these traits in math and science classes, such as by carrying out a lab experiment. Less technical skill sets, as mentioned earlier, could be developed in any class that engages your mind or requires some teamwork.

Are there any computer science-related free resources available for the middle schoolers to explore?

There are certainly free online computer science courses to explore. Codecademy, Code.org, Khan Academy, FreeCodeCamp, and Coursera are common resources to begin with. Code.org is particularly helpful for middle school students as there is a section already available for students grades 6-12 that explores different subfields in computer science. Options include learning how to make your first app, game, or website with a myriad of resources to help a student along the way. However, to delve into the typical syntax and specific programming languages, take the starter quiz in Codecademy and discover what languages may interest the student. While the resources listed above are helpful for beginners, students should attempt to create their projects, using tutorials as guidance, or more flexible courses like The Odin Project that requires one to learn to use relevant environments, IDEs, that they may use in the future. The beauty of online learning is that it is self-paced, so students can create their learning adventure.

Starting from their middle school, what extracurricular or volunteer activities they should pick up to support their goals of getting into a good computer science undergraduate program in college?

Middle school is the opportune time to get exposed to programming languages. Once you are comfortable with your skills, challenge yourself by attending online hackathons such as from Major League Hacking! Oftentimes there are workshops and mentors to aid beginners in competitions, so do not feel discouraged. While one may assume that “hacking” is the sole purpose of hackathons, these competitions vary in structure and theme but center around creating a product within a few days. Products range from websites to iOS apps, and you have the option of working in teams. Apart from competitions, take the time to explore distinct extracurriculars. I spent my middle school years organizing fundraisers, carwashes, assisting senior citizens, and more. Despite not learning technical skills from those experiences, I gained an understanding of the needs of the community, which I may use technology to solve later. In high school, I focused my service in medicine and healthcare in a hospital and autism youth center which led to my current pursuit in biotechnology, where computer science remains essential. Additionally, attending national organizations like the Science National Honors Society is encouraged as you may encounter individuals passionate in computer science. Computer science is the glue that connects fields in STEM, and arts. If you choose to pursue an interconnected field like computer science, you should also take time to experience different sectors of your community through your extracurricular activities.

For High Schoolers

What courses they should take in high school to pursue their interests in the Computer Science field? What can they do to prepare academically?

Hackathons, bootcamps, and other resources will always be available for students of all ages! Therefore, do not stress if you have not started your computer science endeavors in middle school. You should continue to take STEM courses, and if programming classes are limited, science, engineering, and math classes should suffice. What is more important than the particular course itself is challenging yourself with Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or, if possible, dual enrollment courses at a local community college. Undergraduate colleges or universities normally favor students who maximize their available resources, which includes advanced courses offered at their schools. Additionally, these classes will teach you how to study efficiently which would later help you acclimate to the rigor of college or university.

How to get a Computer Science field related volunteer opportunities as a high school student?

Given the popularity of the field, various opportunities are available, mainly through internships. However, volunteer positions range from teacher assistants to research positions. Regardless, having a background in several programming languages with experience outside of the classroom, through competitions or independent projects you can submit, are advised.

How can they make themselves a “well qualified” candidate for a good undergraduate computer science program?

Due to the pandemic colleges and universities are less concerned with testing requirements. As a result, teacher recommendations, essays, interviews, and extracurriculars have become more valuable in applications. The qualities of a “well qualified” candidate should already be reflected by a student in the classroom. In your recommendation letters, your teachers should be able to draw examples of your positive traits: leadership, mindfulness, creativity, or grit. College admissions want students who can meet the standards of their institution or add a new perspective or background. This new perspective may be reflected in your Common App or Coalition App main essay. Typically, students begin their writing in a narrative-style, tying to unique experiences or abstract thoughts that lead to the topic of an essay. A “well qualified” candidate creates a compelling story that keeps the reader wanting to learn more about you. When writing the essays, have your friends, teachers, or college advisors critique your piece. You may also use the same people to ask for mock interviews if you feel it necessary. Lastly, ensure that you have some experience in computer science or technology-related programs or research, but also take part in programs that you enjoy! Colleges know that secondary education is both a time for academics, but also exploration, so be curious about the world around you!

What extracurricular or club opportunities should they look for? How can they find out about these experiences?

Explore any computer science or engineering related clubs you may have in your school! Personally, I wish I took advantage of the clubs offered at my school. While I did robotics and school java competitions, game development and girl coding clubs were available which I did not partake in. Even if you do not believe you are interested at first, go to the interest meeting and the first few meetings if you can. Who knows, perhaps you may find what subfield in computer science you want to invest more time, or your career, in the future.

What summer programs should high school students look for? How do they approach research and acquiring positions?

Other opportunities are also available online. Internships in organizations such as NASA have periodic internship positions that you may apply for and applicants benefit from having technical experience. Make sure to start your research for these summer opportunities in early fall, around September or October, so that you do not miss out on application deadlines!

What should they consider when applying to an undergraduate computer science program?

A program is only as beneficial as its professors. Colleges, where computer science is a popular major, should have large facilities and professors that engage in areas you may be interested in career-wise: theory, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, among others. Next, research what the student culture is like from previous or current students. Do students from collaborative, tight-knit communities or compete against each other in class? Lastly, if you want to work after your bachelor’s degree, consider programs situated near entrepreneurial or tech powerhouses. For example, colleges in California are more likely to have college visits from companies like Google based in Silicon Valley. Therefore, when designing your list for colleges to apply for, consider its location, teaching, and student culture.

Is some research experience necessary to get admission into a good undergrad computer science program?

Research experience is recommended. Some colleges are more strict than others in maintaining your intended major you mentioned in your college application. Even without research experience, you can still be a qualified candidate using other experiences such as founding tech clubs, competing in hackathons, or other engagements. Most colleges or universities expect that you may change your intended major upon attending, so research in any field in STEM would be just as beneficial as research related to computer science. Research is not necessary as long as you demonstrate that you take initiative with the resources at your disposal in your school or community: clubs, internships, or building projects at home.