IM Chatbots at Youth Slam: A Promising Practice in Inspiring Students who are Blind and Low-Vision to Pursue Computer Programming

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The National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam is for high school students with visual impairments who want to engage in challenging activities designed to build confidence and increase science literacy. At the 2007 and 2009 Youth Slam events, teams from the University of Washington offered instant messaging (IM) chatbots as a topic for student in the computer science track.

An IM chatbot is a program that can send and receive instant messages from a human. For example, a weather chatbot might answer questions like "What is the weather in Seattle today?" or a rock music chatbot might answer questions like "What concerts are happening in Baltimore this week?"

The YouthSlam chatbot workshop was conducted in eighteen hours over the course of five days. Each student was provided a computer workstation with the screen reader JAWS or screen magnifier Zoomtext. Students were provided a significant amount of infrastructure so that they needed to write only short programs to create chatbots. The programming activities were interspersed with other activities that included interviews with blind and low-vision role models in the computing field and Computer Science Unplugged activities. The agenda for the 2009 workshop was as follows:

  • Day 1 (4 hours): Introductions. Overview of the week's schedule. Set up of computer and IM accounts. Creation of simple chatbots.
  • Day 2 (3.5 hours): Programming concepts—including variables, if-then, if-then-else, calling functions for web services, simple expressions—each paired with IM chatbot examples. Students work at their own pace progressing through a student tutorial. Students begin building chatbots similar to the examples. Interview with first role model (30 minutes).
  • Day 3 (3.5 hours): Students begin working on their own personal chatbots with assistance from instructors. Interview with second role model (30 minutes). Computer Science Unplugged activity (30 minutes).
  • Day 4 (3.5 hours) Students continue working on their own personal chatbots with assistance from instructors. Interview with third role model (30 minutes).
  • Day 5 (3.5 hours) Students complete and demonstrate their chatbots. Computer Science Unplugged Activity (30 minutes). Closing presentation on careers in computing (20 minutes).

Five to seven instructors, most of whom were computer science students, facilitated the workshop of fifteen students. The instructors would rotate among the students answering questions, teaching, and giving ideas for specific chatbots that the students might be interested in creating. Students who used screen readers employed head phones so as not to disturb the class. Instructors who were helping those students also used head phones and a splitter to listen to what the student was listening to.

On the final day, each student demonstrated their chatbot to the entire group with laughter and applause as each demonstration was completed. Students learned that programming can be hard work and very technical and felt a sense of accomplishment and pride in their chatbots. Some students copied their chatbots to their flash drives to show their friends and relatives at home.

IM chatbot Computer Science Track is a promising practice in providing high school students with visual impairments a taste of computer programming and encouraging them to pursue computing careers. Additional information on this IM chatbot workshop is described in the paper "Inspiring Blind High School Students to Pursue Computer Science with Instant Messaging Chatbots" in the Proceedings of the 39th SIGCSE technical symposium on Computer Science Education, pages 449-453, 2008. Teaching and student tutorials for the workshop are available at http://webinsight.cs.washington.edu/nfbslam/.

AccessComputing mingrant activities have been funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program of the Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE) (grant #CNS-0540615, CNS-0837508, and CNS-1042260).

Last update or review: January 22, 2013