Our annual Computing Camp returned bigger than ever! This is our fourth year working with the CWS Harrisonburg Immigration and Refugee Program to offer a week-long computer camp to local refugee students, and this year we expanded the curriculum to welcome thirteen new participants and support twelve returning students.
We offered two separate tracks: Dr. Johnson taught a track for those new to programming with Twoville, a language he created to help students learn programming by coding and printing 2D designs. For the students who attended last year and were ready for a bigger challenge, five faculties from the departments of Computer Science and Information Technology teamed up to teach the students Python through Turtle Graphics, Finch Robots, Encryption and Networking.
Students on the left participating in the Twoville Track; students on the right in the Python Track
There were 25 local students in attendance – many of them high school students displaced from Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to the CS and IT faculty, we were joined by Joseph, an intern from CWS, and five undergraduate teaching assistants who helped the students one-on-one in the classroom: Sanda, Mackenzie, Chad, Ronal, and Abdullah.
Our amazing Camp TAs: Makenzie, Sanda, Chad, Joseph, Ronal and Abdullah
For Abdullah, the camp was more than just an opportunity to share his love of computer science; working with the refugee students touched him. In 2007, when Abdullah was four, his family had to flee Kurdistan. “My father worked as a linguist in the United States Armed Forces and that led to resistance from insurgents. My father quickly applied for a special VISA for linguists and their families, and we were offered one of 50.” Abdullah explained: “I don’t remember much of my time in Iraq, but my mother told me many stories from her time, not only during the two invasions, but also during the genocide in Anfal.”
Abdullah said he felt a connection with the students that he usually doesn’t experience: “If you are forced to flee your homeland in a quick way, you are left with nothing, and my family struggled for years when we first came here. Because of this, I didn’t get many opportunities in the field of education. I went to JMU with the purpose of making sure that others in my place would have opportunities that I didn’t, and when I heard about this camp I knew it was meant for me. Being able to help at this camp, learn with students and share our cultures and language was without a doubt the most rewarding experience I have had in my student career.”
Abdullah helps students in the Twoville Track
One of the camp’s learning goals is to teach students how to program with practical and tangible results. Whether writing code to print as vinyl decal designs or programming a robot, the code was never abstract: it had real-world results. Paige Normand, the Computer Science Outreach Coordinator, explains: “During camp, I saw students identify clear objectives for what they wanted to accomplish with their code — navigate an obstacle course with a Finch Robot or create a T-shirt design — and once they are invested in the result, it gives them so much more motivation and passion to explore the code and solve problems to achieve that goal.The faculty has done a fantastic job capturing the students’ curiosity and creativity and connecting it to learning computer programming.”
Students show work they made during the camp
Although one of the students was quick to point out that the fun of the camp was not only that they had the opportunity to make stickers and t-shirts, but also because the faculty were “such great teachers.” A college student shared in her parting thank you note that she is now much more interested in computer science”not because I get to take and make things, but simply because of the way you teach. I hope to come back next year. I hope you enjoyed this week as much as I did.”
One of the highlights of this year’s Python Track was an Encryption Scavenger Hunt that took students through EnGeo and King Building, connecting to networks, deciphering secret messages, and for the lucky winners, earning the prize of ice cream sandwiches. dr. Ahmad Salman, a faculty member in IT who designed and delivered the Encryption Day, said: “It was really great to see the students working on cracking encrypted messages during the scavenger hunt, demonstrating how much they can learn in such a short time. .”
Students watch their designs being cut with the Universal Laser System
On the final day, the Twoville students visited the Digital Fabrication Lab in the Engineering Department to use the Universal Laser Systems VLS4.60 to cut their designs into acrylic or plywood. The camp culminated Friday afternoon with a display case in the nTelos Room (King 259). dr. Nathan Sprague explained that this is where computer scientists and researchers from all over the country present their work and where we wanted the students to show what they had achieved that week.
Students present their camp projects
Plavidie and Natnael explained the code they wrote for their Finch Robot to navigate the walls of the room; Aron made a video to show his networking project in action; and Riziki and Eskadar presented their process for using frequency analysis to decode a message. The students cheered each other on as they showed off their creations for the week. New students got a glimpse of what they can learn when they return next year. Rebecca Sprague, the coordinator of the CWS youth and employment program, said enough students have asked about ways they can continue to learn programming this summer that she is working to find more computers for them.
This camp would not have been possible without the generosity of Dean Kolvoord and special thanks go to Cedar Johnson and Joseph Kabesha for their help during the camp and John Wild for supporting our use of the Engineering Fabrication Lab!