M3 Camp aims to stimulate interest in computer science among underserved

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Felicia Monroe checks one last box on the computer screen before she turns around and asks the question: “Are you ready to see this?”

She pushes the space bar and her movie begins playing. There is an Old West backdrop, with what looks like a bank as the primary building. In front are skeletons, ghouls and ghosts. The sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” then begin to pierce through the speakers, and Monroe’s collection of ghastly characters begins to dance.

Monroe has written and programmed the video herself. Each move on the screen — from the fog rolling through to the movement of every arm and leg — she choreographed herself through the JAVA-based computer programming software.

“I like to work with computers, but I’ve never really had an opportunity to work with things like this,” says Monroe, a rising eighth grader at Phillips Academy. “It’s fun to be able to make this on my own. I like that I can make it do what I want it to do.”

Monroe is one of more than 60 sixth- and seventh-grade students from Phillips Academy and Washington Elementary who recently spent up to two weeks taking part in the M3 Camp, a National Science Foundation-funded project administered by UAB’s Community Outreach and Development Program (CORD). The camp affords students from underserved communities the opportunity to learn high-level computing to better prepare them for future educational and employment opportunities.

M3 — which stands for Multiple Mentoring Model — is a partnership between UAB and the Birmingham City schools. The camp follows a tiered mentoring program model. UAB students learn the basics of computer science and technology education in two fall courses — Introduction to Computing through Alice and Computer Science Education Delivery. In these courses, students from the UAB School of Education and Department of Computer and Information Science students work collaboratively to understand the best methods for delivering computer science education in middle and high schools.

UAB students then go out to area high schools in the spring and teach what they learned. The educational opportunity offered by this program is part of the regular curriculum of the high school and an alternative to the standard required course that focuses on computer applications like Microsoft Office. The high school students become adept at computational thinking via lesson plans using topics from CS Unplugged, Scratch and Alice. This becomes an entrée to courses in Java and Robotics that are offered in collaboration with UAB.

At the conclusion of the course, several high school students are selected to serve with the UAB students as teachers and mentors to the middle school students for the M3 Camp.

Dalorion Johnson, a recent UAB computer science graduate, was the student coordinator for this summer’s M3 Camp. Johnson worked in various capacities the past two summers in CORD’s Alice camps, which teach high and middle school students the basics of computer programming and enable them to write and create their own computer videos and games.

“We didn’t go into the schools to do the Alice camps; they came to us,” Johnson says. “We’re introducing them to something new in their own comfort zone. I think the more familiar atmosphere has helped them.”

One of the other goals of the camp is to engage minority and women students in an effort to increase their numbers in the computer science field, says CORD Director Michael Wyss, Ph.D.

“Minority populations and girls are vastly underrepresented in the industry, and we think it’s important for them to gain those skills in computing, because they’re going to be necessary in almost any job they take,” Wyss says.

Wyss points to the Mercedes plant in Vance as a prime example. Most of the new plant employees have to be computer literate beyond understanding basic Microsoft Word and Excel applications.

“They have to understand computers at a much higher level just to get the regular line jobs at the Mercedes plant, because everything out there is operated by robotic arms,” Wyss says.

“If these students are going to be competitive for the workforce and if we’re going to have a viable workforce in Alabama for industry, we have to get them better educated in computing,” Wyss says.

Johnson knows minority women are underrepresented in the computer science industry. It’s one of the reasons she’s happy to have the opportunity to lead the M3 Camp. “I feel like I have a reason for being here,” Johnson says. “They see someone they can hopefully identify with teaching these concepts. To have someone demographically similar to them teaching them — especially at this stage of their life — I think it’s a lot easier for them to see this is a career opportunity for them.”

Assessing the program

The first two weeks of the four-week program were held in July at Washington Elementary, which is located in one of the most economically depressed parts of Birmingham. Forty students — all sixth- and seventh-graders — participated. Wyss was excited to see that when the students presented on the final two days of camp, almost 20 parents came to watch and see what their children had learned.

“That’s very unusual,” Wyss says. “Quite often these parents tend not to be very engaged in their children’s education, but they really got engaged in this. Hopefully they will support them as they move forward.”

Phillips Academy, where the final two weeks of the camp were held, is considered the magnet middle school for the city. Wyss says his group is tracking how the program worked in the two schools to see how to better shape it in the future.

“We’re doing a formative assessment and trying to understand best practices for conveying this kind of information and engaging kids in wanting to learn computer sciences beyond just games,” Wyss says.

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