For many children this past summer, the COVID-19 pandemic halted typical activities like camps, vacations, and internships. But about 90 students in the Worcester area and beyond were able to learn new computer science skills during the summer months thanks to a pilot program at Clark University.
Clark’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and Hiatt Center for Urban Education launched Project CODY in June, using a group of volunteer mentors from Clark and the nearby Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science to teach younger children the fundamentals of coding. The virtual program, split into two four-week sessions, taught K-12 students basic programming skills through programs like CS First and Scratch, as well as languages like HTML, CSS, and Java for the more advanced participants.
“Computer literacy is an important skill and everyone should have access to this technology. It was the summer of COVID lockdown, so we knew a lot of kids would not be able to get out and see their friends or go to summer camp. Many had parents at home who needed the house quiet,” says Jamie Yeo ’22, one of the program’s lead mentors. “This was an opportunity for kids to see each other and interact with us.”
Yeo, along with Violet Blue ’22, Faaiz Masood ’20, and Clarise Liu — a senior at the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science — served as lead mentors, working with a team of nearly 20 additional high school volunteers. Together, they promoted the program, planned and taught lessons, and held a final presentation for students and parents at the end of the summer.
“It was really fun. I had the youngest programmers, so I would teach them using fun graphics. Eventually they got to understand not only what happens when you push certain buttons, but how the buttons work,” Yeo recalls, adding that although the classes met twice a week by Zoom, multiple students leaped ahead by watching video tutorials on their own time. “They would come to class and show off something they built. That was amazing.”
The concept of CODY was motivated by Liu’s suggestion to create an engaging summer coding program for Worcester Public Schools students, who only had asynchronous online classes in the spring. The initiative was further developed by Professor Katerine Bielaczyc, director of the Hiatt Center for Urban Education, and professors Li Han and John Magee, both of Clark’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Seeing a need for more STEM education at a younger level, the professors recruited the four lead mentors to help create the program. In addition to providing K-12 students a structured activity, CODY gave the high school and college students a meaningful volunteer opportunity.
The faculty believe that having younger students learn from high school- and college-age students added an important layer of social modeling and encouragement to the educational effort. They are now in the process of applying for a grant to help fund future sessions. “My favorite part of the program is the intergenerational interactions and learning that happens,” Bielaczyc says.
Han and Bielaczyc have worked together on similar initiatives, collaborating on computer science-related afterschool programs for the last decade.
“Both of us are very passionate about broadening student participation in computer science, especially in the Worcester Public Schools,” Han says. “Many K-12 and college students, especially those underrepresented in science and technology, rarely get sufficient encouragement, education, or opportunities to explore technical skills and careers. Computer scientists come from diverse backgrounds, and computational skills are applicable to many disciplines. Those are important facts we want to push while making introductory computer science more accessible and exciting.”
Yeo and Blue both received LEEP Fellowships to help plan and teach CODY, while the other students volunteered their time to gain valuable leadership experience.
Blue, who is a double major in Spanish and computer science, says her interest in computer science began with watching science fiction movies as a child. She was fascinated by the gadgets in the films and always wondered whether they could be recreated in real life. When she got to Clark, she learned how to code for the first time. Throughout CODY, she taught her students how to create interactive games using CS First and Scratch, as well as how to build their own websites using HTML and CSS.
“It was so heartwarming to see the kids interact with us, and as summer went along, a good handful of the students I had stayed with me,” she says. “To see them continue to warm up to us and talk with us about their siblings and what they’re doing was great. I didn’t want it to end.”
Masood volunteered to help young programmers gain in-depth knowledge of the fundamentals of coding and found that designing his course and assignments were his favorite parts of the program. He originally came to Clark as a physics major but switched to computer science after connecting with several alumni from his home country of Pakistan who were working as software engineers.
“I’ve always wanted to make an impact. When I first got introduced to programming, it was like solving puzzles. As I continued my journey through college, I realized that writing a few lines of code can make a huge impact on the society,” he says.
Liu created the CODY website and helped recruit the program’s other volunteers from her high school, in addition to collaborating with co-mentors to develop and teach classes. Growing up, she says, she witnessed the chronic underfunding of STEM programs in the Worcester Public Schools and wanted to help fill that gap in computer science education. When she was younger, Liu attended several informal computer clubs hosted by Clark — opportunities that piqued her interest in STEM.
“I wanted to bring that same opportunity to those who might not have computer science readily available,” she says. “As someone who grew up in Worcester, being able to give back to my community was incredibly rewarding.”
The team hopes to make CODY a regular offering and are looking into hosting the program next spring and summer. Faculty also are offering an introductory computer programming and animation course to Clark students during Winter Intersession that will follow CODY’s hands-on principles.
“I was impressed by how much everybody learned, not just the students enrolled, but the mentors and advisors as well,” Magee says. “It was great to see how everybody managed to work together through a totally new remote-learning environment and enthusiastically dove right in to explore and create interesting projects.”