The Saturday Computing Experience is an eight-week program held in the spring at the University of Washington for local high school students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The accessible program introduces students to computers and computer programming with the goal of encouraging them to consider college majors and careers in computing fields. The inaugural Saturday Computing Experience was held in spring 2011.

Participants and Location

About ten high school students who are deaf or hard of hearing participate each year. Students are recruited by contacting local high schools, especially those with significant populations of students with hearing impairments. Multiple email messages are sent during the winter months. The required application consists of four pieces: an application form, a statement of interest, a transcript, and a parental permission form. Students who are selected to participate in the program meet entrance requirements and demonstrate that they will benefit from the program through their grades and statements of interest.

The Director of the Saturday Computing Experience chooses the curriculum and coordinates the sessions. A Program Coordinator assists the director by taking care of non-curricular logistics. The curriculum employs well known tools for teaching programming and computer science concepts such as Arduino, Scratch, App Inventor, Greenfoot, Alice, Lego Mindstorms, Processing, and Computer Science Unplugged. Computer science students and external volunteers serve as mentors to the students. Several computer science students with hearing impairments also serve as teaching assistants and mentors for the class. Mentors work one-on-one with students, forming teams of two, to work on individual projects. The mentor’s role is to help guide the student on his or her projects, without taking over. There is very little formal classroom-style instruction because students begin working on their projects the first day. Because most mentors are not fluent in sign language, interpreters are provided. Captioning is also provided if requested by a student. Mentors are encouraged to communicate directly with their students by writing or typing on a keyboard.

The program is held in the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering on the University of Washington campus. Holding the event on campus, and in the Computer Science building, exposes students to a university-level computing environment. This familiarity may help encourage them to consider majoring in a computing field.

Activities and Logistics

Each Saturday morning session lasts for two and a half hours. The curriculum employs project-based strategies. For the first two or three weeks, students work on small projects with their mentors to build up their expertise with the technology and tools they will use for their final projects. For the last five weeks, students work on their individual final projects. In the end, no two projects are the same. Although the student is in charge of the project, the mentor can help manage the size and difficulty of the project scope so that the student can be successful. The mentor is there to help the student overcome difficulties he or she encounters, and to teach techniques that will help the student complete the project. This type of project-based experience helps prepare students for challenges that they will encounter in their careers.

During the sessions, the Director keeps everyone working and focused. Often, a student will have completed a small project and seem to have nothing to do. By visiting the student and her or his mentor, the director can suggest a new project or an extension of the current project. Once students start working on their final projects, the Director circulates among them, asking for demonstrations of what they have done so far, suggesting ideas to solve specific problems, and proposing enhancements.

Session breaks are taken for group activities based on Computer Science Unplugged. These activities take place in an open space away from computers and employ physical activity. Efforts are made to ensure that activities are interactive and fun; students learn about high-level concepts like binary numbers, encryption, sorting, and parallel computing. These breaks usually last 30 minutes, taken after an hour of working on their projects. When the students return to their projects they are refreshed and ready for their more concentrated and individual activity. Light healthy snacks are always available during the day to keep students energized, if needed.

A number of curriculum options have been considered for use in the Saturday Computing Experience. In 2011, student projects were done in Arduino; in 2012, they were done in Scratch. Changing the curriculum meant that some students who participated in 2011 were able to return in 2012 and learn new material. The Arduino final projects included a light color mixer; a sound detector where volume was displayed in lights; and a temperature sensor with a light that turned blue when cold, and transitioned to red when hot. The Scratch final projects included an animated short that demonstrated technology for a person with a mobility disability, and an interactive memory game. These projects demonstrated to the students that computer science is a useful and exciting career path.

On the final day, parents, friends, and teachers are invited to view their projects. Students present their projects individually and explain how they were accomplished. Everyone stays for a pizza lunch so that mentors, students, parents, friends, and teachers can mingle.


The Saturday Computing Experience is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Funds are used to pay for equipment and/or software expenses, interpreting and captioning costs, food, and staff time. Director and Program Coordinator salaries are supported by AccessComputing.


Evaluation forms are distributed to both students and parents. Students have reported increased knowledge about computing topics. Parents have reported that their children learned about, gained interest in, and were more likely to major in computer science fields. One parent shared that after the program, her daughter “uses the computer more to support [her] schoolwork.” Another said it was a “great experience. Hopefully it will help her to think more logically.” One parent commented: “Thank you for this experience for my child. It was interesting for him and was first rate. Very professionally done and obviously spared no expense for their experience and the presentation day. Will definitely encourage him to attend again if possible and will recommend it to others.”

Lessons Learned

For individuals who wish to conduct a similar activity for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, project organizers suggest the following:

  • Make use of your local networks to recruit students. Connect with local teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing, parent groups, hearing and speech centers, children’s hospitals, and community service centers working with the deaf community. Connect with the state school for the deaf to find students in your area that may come home for the weekends. Organizations like the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) may be able to help you locate mainstreamed deaf and hard-of-hearing students not connected with a regional program. Contact your college or university’s American Sign Language (ASL) program to see if there are math or computer science majors taking ASL who might be interested in volunteering to mentor with students.
  • Consider changing your curriculum and activities from year to year. This allows students who attend multiple years to learn new skills. When you are drawing students from the local area, having students come back may increase your participation to ensure you have a sufficient number of interested students.
  • Help students prepare for and think about majoring in computing fields when they attend college. The curriculum will introduce them to concepts—but meeting computing students, faculty and professionals, especially those that are deaf or hard of hearing, makes for a lasting impression. Seeing academic computing environments will also be beneficial.
  • Recruit current and former computer science students at your university to be mentors. It is unlikely that mentors will know sign language or have worked with deaf or hard-of-hearing students. Most will not have experience working one-on-one as mentors in a project-based curriculum, or with the particular curriculum that will be used. Have a meeting with all the mentors prior to the start of the program to cover special considerations when working with deaf students, including how to communicate with and without interpreters (such as writing, or using a laptop or electronic writing device). Help the mentors understand their mentoring role in bringing the curriculum to the students and teach the curriculum basics. This meeting usually takes about an hour.


The following resources may be useful to those who wish to sponsor computing-related activities for students who are deaf or hard of hearing: