JMU offers third annual computing camp for refugee students

by Paige Normand, CS Advisor and Outreach Coordinator


SUMMARY: JMU's Computer Science Department (CS) and the Harrisonburg CWS Refugee Resettlement (CWS) team up to offer the third annual Computing Camp for local refugee students to increase students' access and familiarity to programming.

Inside the classroom, Soliana designs a bear with its arms wide open, and Mubara creates a pair of life-sized glasses. Moses works on an intricate "MK" for his initials. At the same time, Huda integrates multiple concepts to craft her profile of a cowboy, painted in glittery gold on her shirt. Each student uses a newly learned programming language in JMU's computer science camp held June 14-18.

2021 Computing Camp

During the week-long camp, computer science professor Chris Johnson taught students how to create stencils and stickers, plot out vertices and determine the arcs by designing a UFO, and master loops by creating caterpillars and Mayan temples. Johnson used – a site he created to help students learn programming concepts by creating 2D designs that can be brought to life.

"Since the camp was entirely about making two-dimensional designs, nearly every activity started on paper rather than on the computer," says Johnson. "The students did far better thinking on that paper without the computer fracturing their focus. By the time the students got to the computer, they had already worked out the numbers and math they needed. Separating computational thinking from programming eliminated a lot of frustration.” 

2021 Computing Camp

In addition to using code to create and print designs, students toured the labs in JMU's Department of Engineering. With the help of John Wild, Engineering Lab Manager, students learned about the Shell Supermileage project, Collegiate Wind Competition, and our Autonomous Vehicle. Wild was excited to assist with the camp because he values “exposing young people who might not know about engineering and what engineers do in our program.”

Students also had an opportunity to fly drones, take rides in the self-driving golf cart, and enjoy a pizza party on the Quad

2021 Computing Camp

“The relationships begun here are incredibly impactful," says Rebecca Sprague, CWS Community Program Coordinator. "The youth are on JMU’s campus, learning computer coding, feeling supported, and they can see themselves at a university studying computer science." Sprague believes computer programming is a skill that opens possibilities for people. "Many refugees come from countries without tech economies or even consistent internet access. Now they have a better understanding of what computer programming can do, and they know that they can do it."

"The camp exposes students to computers while encouraging them to explore computing in high school and college," says Sharon Simmons, head of the Computer Science Department.

Johnson and Sprague believe in creating a supportive and playful environment for learning new skills. "I teach young people to code because I believe teaching is part of living in a community," explains Johnson. "Coding is just what I know how to do. If I were a farmer, I'd be teaching young people to grow things. If I were a chef, I'd be teaching young people how to cook. I think the set of skills we equip young people with is secondary to spending time with them." 

2021 Computing Camp

On the final day of class, students surprised the professors with thank you cards.

“Thank you all for the amazing camp experience that you gave to us! I really learnt some cool stuff! I really enjoyed it and I appreciate that you all made it FUN” - Mubara

Another student, Huda, shared her final twoville file using the skills she's learned throughout the week – spelling out “THANK YOU” on the large classroom screen. 

2021 Computing Camp

Justicia, teared up as she said goodbye to CS teaching assistant Alice Robertson.  "There was a moment when I was helping her code – when we finally got it completed, we cheered," Alice recalls. "Justicia looked so happy and proud of herself. It's amazing seeing how much the students learned just in a week." 

JMU’s 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.

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Published: Friday, June 25, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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