Igniting young minds

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An SVSU student group recently completed its first program teaching the basics of computer science to a group of 20 students at White Pine Middle School in Saginaw Township.

Fourth-year Michael Roof and second-year Bri Spencer, both computer science students from Midland, piloted the Google-funded outreach initiative igniteCS @ SVSU.

The duo constructed a proposed budget along with a plan to educate members of the local community about computer science. Ultimately, Google awarded the group $9,000. The igniteCS @ SVSU assembly grew to 15 students who put on the program at White Pine.

“It’s an initiative to have undergrad students go out to the community and engage in computer science activities with middle schools and high schools to teach computer science fundamentals,” Roof said.

The group met Tuesday afternoons beginning in late January in a computer lab at White Pine. The program commenced March 21.

The $9,000 in funding went mostly toward purchasing equipment for the class, along with funding the mentors and covering travel costs. Roof mainly coordinated the budget and laid out the course content.
He then bounced the ideas off Spencer, and the two worked together to formalize and execute the program. Spencer was also primarily responsible for communicating with the other members of the group, Google and the parents of the White Pine students.

“It worked out nicely,” Roof said. “We had a limit of 20 students and it just so happened that we got exactly 20 by the end of our selection process.”

All the mentors in the igniteCS group are either majoring or minoring in either computer science or computer information systems.

While designing the course, Roof and Spencer wanted to show the students there is far more to computer science than just coding.

“It’s far more hands-on than that,” Roof said. “I wanted to show them that it could be easy to learn even at a middle school age. And it’s not just on a computer. I wanted to give them the largest exposure I could to what computer science actually is.”

Spencer highlighted a specific lesson that seemed to go over well with the students, while also being fun and beneficial for the mentors.

“’Hour of Code’ was an interactive game-type learning session,” she said. “The students had blocks of code language, and they dragged and dropped with computer science fundamentals. So without having to type everything out, they were learning loops and conditional if-thens and other basics.”

The group was able to pull from existing resources, such as the “Hour of Code” website, so they could focus further on mentoring the students.

“We really had an experience with them,” Spencer said. “We were constantly getting feedback about what they liked, what they didn’t like and then directing them to different resources.”

In addition to the “Hour of Code” website, the group also used Sphero robots, Android tablets and a virtual-reality (VR) computer, allowing each student to experience VR.

On the final day of the course, the SVSU students presented each student with a computer science kit that contained a Next Thing Co. C.H.I.P. computer, an HDMI display adapter, an HDMI cable, a gamepad, a USB cable, a power brick, a wireless mouse and keyboard and giveaway items from Google igniteCS.

“We made a portion of the budget just for the kids,” Roof said. “I felt that it wasn’t enough just to teach them about computer science in the classroom. We didn’t even have to say a word, and the kids starting cheering when they saw some of the things in the kit.”

Additionally, the mentors gained valuable experience teaching and interacting with young people.

“There was obviously a very different mindset and attention span than what we were used to,” Roof said. “I never thought I would enjoy teaching others about computer science so much. Seeing their faces light up and seeing things click for them at their age was really fulfilling.”

Spencer mentioned someone who was very unsure of herself at the beginning of the program, but as each session progressed, she gained more and more interest.

“We just really sparked her interest,” Spencer said. “At the beginning, she didn’t really know what she liked or what she wanted to do, but by the end it was, ‘Oh, I really like this’ or, ‘That was a little tough, but I really liked it.’ It was really fulfilling to watch growth like that and to experience it with them.”

The SVSU group is excited to continue the program after it received such a good response in its inaugural initiation.

“Even if we don’t get funding again, we still have the resources like the Spheros, the tablets and the mentors to do this all over,” Spencer said.