If “beach days” and “learning loss” is all that comes to mind when you think of high school students on summer break in Southern California, then you haven’t met any of the students who attended UC Irvine’s ICS Summer Academy. Housed in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), the academy hosted 45 local high school students this summer on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., giving them the opportunity to learn about data science and machine learning, and apply their new knowledge and skills to a real-world problem. Plenty of social activities were included as well for the perfect blend of college academics and summer fun.
“I had an incredible time at UCI during the ICS Summer Academy,” says Joyce De Quiros, a junior at Newport Harbor High School. “My favorite part about the Summer Academy was making new friends and participating in fun activities with them inside and outside of the classroom. I loved every moment!”
Exploring Applications of Computer Science
The motivation behind the ICS Summer Academy, which first launched in 2022 with the “Data Analytics: Theory & Applications” course, was to expose high school students to the ever-growing field of computing and its variety of topics and practical applications. Now in its second year, the academy has expanded to include a course on “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).”
From July 10 – July 21, 2023, students in Session I learned about data processing, data visualization and statistical modeling, and from July 24 – Aug. 4, students in the newly added Session II (with 80% of students attending both sessions) learned about basic ML/AI concepts such as classification, clustering, tree-based modeling, Bayesian networks, and AI and games.
“I only had experience with programming prior to joining this program, and I left with knowledge of statistics, a new programming language (R), AI, and machine learning,” says De Quiros. “Not only did I learn so much, but I also gained confidence in college itself and my decision to major in computer science!”
At the concluding symposium on Aug. 4, students gave group presentations on a research question related to better understanding Alzheimer’s disease. During the symposium, Computer Science Professor Magda El Zarki, who serves as director of the academy, praised the students. “I’m amazed by the pool of students we had here,” she said. “They exceeded all our expectations in their learning abilities.” The students presented on topics ranging from “Analyzing the Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease” to “Indicators of Diagnosis” to “Alzheimer’s Mental Illness & Socio-Demographic Factors.” The presentations exemplified the students’ understanding of complex topics as applied to a real-world dataset.
“I showed them different techniques that tend to make discoveries in data when coupled with human intelligence — [human learning] is an important part of applying AI in machine learning,” explains Associate Professor of Teaching Michael Shindler, who taught the AI/ML course. “And then the students would set up a hypothesis: ‘If I apply this technique, what will it tell me?’ And they were able to make discoveries! I’m very proud of their work.”
Getting a Taste of College Life
Students not only learned about the field of computing and its wide-ranging applications, but also got to experience life in a university setting. In addition to the team of instructors, five undergraduate ICS students served as learning assistants throughout, helping the students with their coursework as well as introducing them to campus activities.
“It was always so fun to work on the project [and] we would also have a lot of fun playing games like dodgeball and basketball [and] my personal favorite, esports,” says De Quiros. “There was never a dull moment during the program as there was something new to learn, see and do every day. I made incredible memories with the friendliest staff and peers. … I am so glad I signed up for the program!”
Annabelle Guiditta, a senior at Saint Anthony High School in Long Beach, shared similar sentiments. “The program was an enriching way to spend my summer, striking a perfect balance between fun and learning,” she says. “During the program, I had the opportunity to explore and become engaged with various subjects, including taking an extensive dive into statistics in a limited timeframe, gaining proficiency in R, and gaining an interest in the basics of machine learning.” The class setting was another bonus. “One thing that made the program particularly special was the close bond I developed with teachers and instructors due to the small class size.”
Guiditta also enjoyed learning about the different areas of study housed in the three ICS Departments of Computer Science, Informatics, and Statistics and about the many career pathways available. “The program introduced me to different ICS majors, gave me a sense of the campus, and offered insights into on-campus activities like the Esports Arena,” she says. “Overall, the program allowed me to explore the campus and truly understand UCI’s environment, making me put UCI at the top of my application list.”
What’s New for 2024
Next year, the plan for the ICS Summer Academy is to offer four courses during the two summer sessions. One of the new offerings will be a cryptography course taught by Shindler. “I plan to focus on the foundations of security, covering everything from technological and social aspects to mathematical foundations,” he says. The final project will likely exemplify people’s ability to decode messages sent via insecure systems, helping students learn how to better protect digital information.
The topic of the fourth course has yet to be determined, but games or the Internet of Things are two possibilities. “If we have four different classes, we’ll be able to admit more students and offer a slightly broader perspective on computer science,” says El Zarki. “The hope for next year is to continue our exponential growth.”
For those interested in learning more about the 2024 ICS Summer Academy, complete the online interest form to be added to an email list and notified about future sessions.
— Shani Murray