Computer Science Career Day Talk to 5th Grade Students

I had a blast this morning talking to fifth grade students at a local Austin elementary school about electrical engineering and computer science.  I told them what my job was like, sketched out how speech recognition works, and talked to them a bit about robots and the Peace Corps.

I stayed up late last night, putting together some images and presentation flow:

  1. Who am I
  2. What I do
  3. Work environment
  4. How does speech recognition work?
  5. Education and employment

It was fun to explain speech recognition.  I suggested that we tell a computer all the English words and then have the computer compare spoken words to stored words.  This isn’t a great approach as there are a ton of words (250,000+) and, what’s more, humans can spell and use completely novel words!  The students got a kick out of spelling my last name: “Romanowski”.  Then, I explained the concept of phonemes and showed a waveform of the utterance, “My dad thought that cat was a bat.”  I should have thought about how best to explain the frequency representation of speech; the spectrogram looked pretty, but I didn’t think enough about how to explain the time and frequency domains in a quick and intuitive way.  (I remember now, though, that I have used the analogy of a guitar and its strings-as-frequency-components with great success in the past.  Drat!)

After the speech recognition primer, I talked about my education and building robots for a university contest, my experience in the Peace Corps (zooming out on Google maps from Niuatoputapu, Tonga wowed the first three classes), and issues in web accessibility.

The classes were mostly well behaved and the teachers did a fantastic job of maintaining classroom discipline.  It was interesting how obvious the effect of multiple sessions on the kids: interest and attention waned as the day progressed.  The first class was super excited and asking great questions, but the fourth class was quite passive.  We had twenty minutes for the talk, five minutes for questions, and the group sizes were about 20-25 students.

Some of the student questions and comments:

  • Your desk is messy.
  • Could you make a computer be a car alarm, so that when a thief tried to take the car, it would show a picture of a snake?
  • How many English words are there: “a thousand”, “a billion”, “twenty six thousand” (that seemed like a good number), “a lot” (and this is probably the best answer)
  • How do blind people click on webpage buttons?
  • What did your skirt (that I wore in the Peace Corps) look like?
  • Do aliens exist?
    • I answered, “well, that really isn’t my specialty,” and then paused to consider whether I should start talking about the Drake equation. Luckily, the teacher realized the kids were just screwing with me and delivered some firm chastisement.

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