Facing My Fear of Middle Schoolers: The Future is Bright

I was asked recently to speak during the Fortyx80 / STEM Coding Lab CS Explorers program to provide middle school students (Grades 5-8) with a free opportunity to learn about careers in computer science, interact with industry professionals and visit tech companies throughout Pittsburgh.

Middle school was not a fun time for me

We moved from a school of about 400 per class to a school of about 60. On my first day, there was an uproar because I was given the cubby next to the pencil sharpener (which is apparently VERY important when you are in a class of 60 other people in semi-rural Pennsylvania). The new school was that 70’s style open concept where 4 classes were arranged in a big X and everyone could see each other. I felt a bit like what Jonas must have felt in The Giver. I had pink hair, something that no one seemed to be able to fathom, and I dressed differently than everyone else. I did not fit in. 

So when I was asked to speak at CS Explorers as an adult in 2023, I was nervous. 

I planned my slides weeks in advance. I added a few slides about who I am, where I am from, added some cat and horse pictures for interest, and then some slides on my career. I finished it out with an overview of DNSFilter and a trivia game where students tried to categorize a website based on its content and then compared their answers to DNSFilter categories.

We're not in Kansas anymore

While I waited next door I overheard the instructor teaching the group how to code a version of Pong. I was amazed that 5th-8th graders were not only able to code this mostly on their own, but to do it so quickly and to understand what would happen if they set things up the wrong way (several people thought that speeding up the ball 100x was pretty funny). 

Thinking back to my 5th-8th grade years, we barely had computers. I sent my first email in 7th grade, and our big “computer science” project was to download and print a short story from an FTP site and then write a report on it. Oh how far we have come…

Kids these days

I was still nervous, thinking back to my middle school experience. But I felt like these were my people (at least more than rural Pennsylvania was in the 90’s). I ended up spending 10 minutes talking about the animals and foods on my first slide. I got at least 20 questions about key lime pie, cats, horses, working in a rat lab, and debated the pros and cons of breadcrumb topping on mac and cheese. I was instantly amazed with how insightful, interested, and attentive this group of kids was. 

I got a lot of questions about hot button issues like ChatGPT, TikTok, the latest and greatest tools they can use to circumvent website blocking policies at their schools (I didn’t give them any details, but did explain the proxy & filter avoidance category definition). Several students immediately recognized that their schools were using DNS filtering products when I explained what DNSFilter does. 

I kept being surprised by how engaged the group seemed with both my presentation and the trivia activity. At one point during the activity, I pulled up a very obvious phishing domain and had to laugh out loud when the room erupted in shouts and pointing at all of the obvious issues on the page (site not secured, incorrect URL, incorrect spelling, etc.).

The future of computer science looks bright

Overall, I am really glad that I faced my fear of middle school (and middle schoolers) and did this talk. Even if these kids only represent a small percentage of middle schoolers out there, they give me hope for the future. They are learning computer science skills at a much younger age, and are bright, caring, and engaged with learning. I am thankful that Pittsburgh has organizations like Fortyx80 and STEM Coding Lab and programs like CS Explorers,  L.A.U.N.C.H., and the Apprenti program to encourage interest in technology careers at all ages. 

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