Washburn professors teach kids about the power of computers

Over the span of two weeks, Washburn University professors will teach 35 Topeka middle school students about computer programming. The students, age 12 to 14, will each spend a week learning programming basics and developing animations.

The summer camp, in partnership with French, Robinson, and Jardine middle schools, is designed to fill a void in the public school curriculum. Donna LaLonde, interim chair of the Washburn education department and one of the program organizers, said that she and her colleagues felt that programming should be part of K-8 education.

According to LaLonde and her co-organizers Karen Camarda, associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy, and David Pownell, assistant professor in the department of education, programming is an increasingly beneficial skill to learn. Computer programming is not only useful in developing problem-solving skills. It will be necessary to thrive in the future economy.

“It’s one of the most important skills of the 21st century,” said Pownell. “It’s what makes the machines run.”

Students learn programming by using Alice software, which is designed to be a student’s first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to create animated movies and simple video games using drag and drop graphic tiles. During this week-long camp, middle school students create a story that explains different aspects of climate change.

This is the inaugural summer for this joint venture, and no one has yet committed to continuing it into the future. However, LaLonde believes that the students are benefiting from the experience the program provides.

And the kids agree.

Kasay Koontz and Destiny Ruff just met last week, but acted as though they had been life-long friends. They both found the experience fulfilling.

“We learn a lot, but they make it somehow fun,” said Koontz, a student at Jardine. Ruff, from French Middle School, agreed in principle, but wasn’t willing to make a carte blanche statement.

“I don’t like it when we learn about math,” she said, “but I like the Alice stuff.”

Some, like Paul Cabili, were disappointed the camp was only a week long. Cabili, a student at French Middle School, was eager to do more.

“I wanted to explore more about making games and movies on a computer,” he said. Referencing his completed project, “If you wanted to make a computer game, it would be ten times as much work as this one.”

While the primary purpose of this summer camp is to expose middle school students to a topic they wouldn’t normally have access to, this was also an opportunity for professors at Washburn to make Topeka a better place.

“We’re committed to education,” said LaLonde, “but we’re also committed to being good community members.”