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4th Annual Computing Camp for Refugee Students


 
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By: Paige Normand, CS Advisor & Outreach Coordinator

Our annual Computing Camp returned bigger than ever! This is our fourth year partnering with the CWS Harrisonburg Immigration and Refugee Program (CWS) to offer a week-long Computing Camp to local refugee students. We expanded the curriculum to welcome 13 new attendees and support 12 returning students. 

We offered two separate tracks: Professor Chris Johnson taught a track for those new to programming with Twoville, a language he created to help students learn programming through coding and printing 2-D designs. For the students who attended last year and were ready for a bigger challenge, five faculty from the Departments of Computer Science (CS) and Information Technology (IT) teamed up to teach the students Python through turtle graphics, finch robots, encryption, and networking.

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Students on the left participating in the Twoville Track; students on the right in the Python Track

Twenty-five local students attended. Many of them are high school students displaced from Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of the 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-one-one in the classroom: Sanda, Mackenzie, Chad, Ronal, and Abdullah.

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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 for computer science; working with the refugee students hit home for him. In 2007, when Abdullah was four, his family had to flee Kurdistan. “My dad worked as a linguist with the American forces, and that resulted in backlash from insurgents. My dad quickly applied for a special VISA for linguists and their families, and we were able to get one of the 50 offered.” Abdullah explained, “I don't remember much of my time in Iraq, but my mom has told me plenty of stories from her time not only during the two invasions, but also the Anfal genocide.”

Abdullah said he felt a connection with the students he doesn’t usually experience: “Being forced to flee your home country in a quick manner leaves you with nothing, and my family struggled for years when we first got here. This resulted in me not having many opportunities when it came to education. I entered JMU with the goal that I would make sure that others in my place would have the opportunities I didn't, and when I heard about this camp, I knew it was meant for me. Being able to help on this camp, learn with students, and share our cultures and language was easily the most rewarding experience I've had in my college career.”

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Abdullah assisting students in the Twoville Track

 
One of the curricular goals of the camp is to have students learn programming with hands-on and tangible outcomes. Either writing code to print as vinyl stickers designs or programming a robot, the code was never abstract: it had real-world outcomes. Paige Normand, the Computer Science Outreach Coordinator, explained: “During the camp, I saw students identify clear objectives for what they wanted to accomplish with their code - navigating an obstacle course with a Finch Robot or creating a T-shirt design - and once they’re invested in the outcome, it gives them so much more motivation and passion to explore and troubleshoot with the code to reach that objective. The faculty did such a fantastic job of capturing the students’ curiosity and creativity and connecting it to learning programming.”  

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Students showcase work they created during the camp

 
Though one of the students was quick to point out that the fun of the camp wasn’t just that they had the opportunity to create stickers and t-shirts, but because the faculty were “such great teachers.” A student shared in her parting Thank-you note that she’s much more interested in Computer Science now “not because I get to take and make stuff but just because of the way you taught. I hope to come back next year. I hope you enjoyed this week as much as I did.” 

One of the highlights from the Python Track this year was an Encryption Scavenger Hunt that took students across EnGeo and King Building, connecting to networks, decoding 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 taught the Encryption Day, said "It was really great watching the students working on cracking encrypted messages during the scavenger hunt, it demonstrated how much they can learn in such a very short time."

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Students watch as their designs are 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 showcase in the nTelos Room (King 259). Dr. Nathan Sprague explained this is where we have Computer Scientists and researchers from all over the nation present their work and where we wanted the students to showcase what they had accomplished during the week.

2022 Computing Camp Presentations
Students showcase their projects from camp


Plavidie and Natnael explained the code they wrote for their Finch Robot to navigate around the walls of the room; Aron created a video to show his networking project in action; and Riziki and Eskadar presented their process for using Frequency Analysis to decrypt a message. The students cheered for each other as they showed off their creations for the week. New students caught a glimpse of what they can learn when they return next year. Rebecca Sprague, the CWS Youth and Employment Program Coordinator, said enough students have asked for ways they can continue to learn programming over the summer that she’s working to track down more computers for them. 

This camp wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of Dean Kolvoord and special thanks go to Cedar Johnson and Joseph Kabesha for both going above and beyond with their assistance during the camp and John Wild for supporting our use of the Engineering Fabrication Lab!

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Published: Friday, June 24, 2022

Last Updated: Monday, July 11, 2022

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