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Connected computing: An NC Zoo and NCSSM partnership with rural schools statewide

In five rural schools across North Carolina, students file into a library or media room and tune into their daily live lesson with me in my IVC 316 class, Connected Computing: Solving Global Challenges with Code. These public school students take this free class through Interactive Video Conferencing provided by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, NC (NCSSM) to learn the latest in digital technologies and methodologies, and they quickly discover that the classwork is not theoretical. At the end of the semester, they will present their empathy-driven computer projects to visitors at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, NC.

The foundation of the course is computer programming, including units in app development, web development, and mechatronics. Each student creates a website, designs a mobile application that runs on a cellphone, and builds a robot from scratch. Wrapped around these technical details is a heavy dose of Design Thinking and User Experience work, where students consider what a zoo visitor might enjoy and then design a project based on the visitor’s needs.  

Empathy is at the core of the project based learning experience. Students conduct a formal literature review and write a summary paper of an animal of their choosing and dig into the unique way that the animal perceives the world. Most animals have senses and abilities humans do not, or have threats and challenges to survival that are foreign to us. The students hone in on a particularly interesting part of their research and then develop a technology that will help zoo visitors empathize with the animal in an emotional way. This emotional connection is the key to Connected Computing and a unique feature of this computer science offering at NCSSM.  

(L to R) Isaac Simon, Preston Thill and Marco Rivera engage zoo visitors with their Red Ruffed Lemur project, which encourages users to press the lemur paws to play a survival game on the computer screen, informing visitors in a playful way about the threats that lemurs face as an endangered species. Courtesy of Charlotte Dungan

I created the course from my work with Dr. Gabriel Miller at San Diego Zoo Global. Dr. Miller explains, “Our shared mission is to save species worldwide by uniting our expertise in animal care and conservation science with our dedication to inspiring passion for nature. My role is to create technologies that lead to greater empathy with and understanding of other life on earth. Ultimately, we aim to continue rescuing species from the brink of extinction.” We met at Harvard while Dr. Miller was building technologies at MIT and continued to stay in contact as I brought the idea down to a high school classroom scale. He visits the students virtually during the semester, alongside a Virtual Reality creator in South Carolina, a roboticist at MIT, and a Curator at the NC Zoo. Each of us share our expertise, but also explain our backgrounds and how we overcame challenges to get to our current role. The shared humanity and encouragement have inspired Connected Computing students to aim higher in college and career goals.  

Brevard facilitator Hale Durant explains, “Connected Computing provided my students with the opportunity to extend their learning from the classroom to hands-on real world design and production work. Their final projects were not built for a hypothetical scenario, but actual products showcased in front of thousands of zoo visitors. This is the kind of education we need to be striving towards, where learning gets out of the school building and into the real world of various trades and industries, and where students can couple the analytical and problem solving skills they have honed in their core academic classes with their imaginations, personal interests, and career aspirations.”  

Kobe Coggins from Smoky Mountain High exhibits his Red Wolf app with a zoo visitor. The app allows the wearer to hear like a wolf and navigate the zoo using sound, hearing the animals up to six miles away as a wolf can to track prey. In the background you can see a robotic turtle made by Jacob White and Monty Carlton at James Kenan High. Courtesy of Charlotte Dungan

Since the students are showing their work and create their projects in teams, they also refine their soft skills in collaboration and communication. Brevard student Marco Rivera was surprised to discover that he has a strength in speaking to strangers when explaining his technology. Kobe Coggins from Smoky Mountain High explains how his confidence grew, “We have computers at the house, but they always felt so advanced. I never really understood it. I was always like, ‘Oh, there’s not really a lot I can really do with computers.’ But taking the class really broke it down and made it basic and I was like, ‘Oh, this all makes sense.’ I actually feel like I can do it now.” His Red Wolf Animal Perception app is available for download in the Google Play store.  You can take it to the zoo and navigate with your sense of hearing to find the various animal exhibits.

Are you interested in having your students participate in engaging experiences like Connected Computing? IVC courses are available at NCSSM in a variety of honors elective topics and are available to public school students in grades 10-12 across the state. Low SES rural schools may additionally be eligible for the STEM Scholars program for ninth and 10th graders, which teaches students in a cohort model and guarantees them at least two courses in high level elective computer science, mathematics, or science, including the option to take Connected Computing.

Charlotte Dungan

Charlotte Dungan is the AI Program Architect at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. After 10 years working as a computer programmer, she earned an education degree with concentrations in K-12 English and History alongside her programming work. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University where she conducted research with computer science educators and developed teacher support materials. At the national level, she is creating guidelines for K-12 AI education and works to expand CS education in rural and underserved areas. She recently won an Aspirations in Computing award from NCWIT.