JMU computer science summer camp aims to help students of refugee backgrounds


SUMMARY: JMU’s Computer Science Department, the Harrisonburg CWS Refugee Resettlement Office, and Harrisonburg High School team to offer a virtual camp for 18 Harrisonburg High School students of refugee backgrounds.

By Lynn Radocha ('18)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all JMU led in-person summer camps have been canceled this summer. However, that didn’t stop the Computer Science (CS) Department and the Harrisonburg CWS Refugee Resettlement Office (CWS) from offering a virtual camp for 18 students, primarily refugee students from Harrisonburg High School (HHS). “Our faculty are deeply committed to expanding access to computer science education,” says Sharon Simmons, Computer Science Department Head. “COVID-19 posed some significant challenges, but the faculty were determined to come through with the camp for these students.”

During the two-week-long camp, held June 1-12, students learned the Python programming language and covered topics such as cybersecurity, networking, data processing, and creating dynamic websites. Guest speakers included local tech entrepreneurs, computer engineers who create medical devices, computer scientists who’ve studied bias in algorithms, and scientists using programming to look at DNA markers in people who are more susceptible to severe COVID.

Each morning began with a lesson in Zoom led by a computer science or information technology professor followed by a guest speaker who uses computer programming in their work. During the afternoon session, students collaborated on projects and worked with undergraduate computer science students.

Mariam Elithy chose to participate in the camp to learn more about computer science. “My experiences during this camp are priceless and will never be forgotten,” said Elithy. “Thank you to the amazing faculty and hardworking teams of teaching assistants who made this all possible. Computer science is definitely something I am interested in pursuing.”

On the last day of class, students had a surprise for their professors. Working virtually during non-camp hours, students created a python program to randomize (mad-lib-style) their favorite experience from camp. “We decided to call it “Glad-libs” in honor of how much it touched the faculty that they took so much time and energy to demonstrate what they’ve learned,” said Simmons.

Many of the students have been attending an after school coding camp led by HHS computer science teacher, Mr. Stapleton.  The goal of both camps is to create a year-round integrated community of support for local youth interested in computer science.

While successful, this format had some challenges.  “We missed being able to bring the students to campus, and working with them over their shoulder,” says Simmons. “Though sharing screens and being able to annotate what we’re seeing is helpful, it’s so much harder to work through technical issues and challenging problems when we’re working remotely.”

Rebecca Sprague, CWS Community Program Coordinator, has been following up with the students over the last week. “Every single student said they learned a lot about working with computers, and they all said the camp was a positive experience,” says Sprague. “You made an impact in the lives of the refugee students, in our community, and across the state.”

The Computer Science Department plans to continue their work with the CWS Refugee Resettlement and Harrisonburg High School to increase the number of young men and women skilled in computer programming to fill well-paying jobs of the future. They plan to host an on-campus version of the camp during the summer of 2021.

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Published: Thursday, June 18, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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