K-12 outreach, CISters organize ‘Hour of Code’ for underrepresented students

Mel Jurist wants all kids to love engineering as much as she does, but she knows that’s a tall order.

Academic program manager of K-12 education in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, Jurist is passionate about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but she’s even more passionate about sharing that love with kids.

On Friday, Dec. 4, she took her show on the road to Elbert-Palmer Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, where she and three computer sciencegraduate students from a group called CISters delivered an “Hour of Code” as part of a global program aimed at getting kids excited about programming.

It can take a lot to excite 10-year-olds who have grown up around technology, but when Jurist mentioned that she knew a 16-year-old who had created a 99-cent app for the sport of fencing and then sold it for $225,000, they started paying attention.

The 15 fourth- and fifth-graders who participated in the program are part of a city-wide gifted and talented program taught by Shelley Suchyj, who grew up in Wilmington herself and became a first-generation college student with the help of a UD scholarship more than 20 years ago.

Knowing that many of the kids in her class have limited or no access to computers at home, she does everything she can to provide them with screen time so they can learn essential computing skills.

Doctoral student Sergio Pino started the event by showing the young programmers that they could create a “computer” for less than $100 by linking a mouse and a keyboard to a “Raspberry Pi” and then using a TV as a monitor.

The kids were very interested in that concept as they passed around the little yellow plastic box that can do everything from browsing the Internet and playing high-definition video to making spreadsheets, word processing, and playing games.

Jurist knows the allure of games for kids this age — all 15 hands went up when she asked, “Who likes to play video games?”

But she emphasized that learning programming could enable them to make their own games as well as to create math quizzes, prepare reports, and display artwork.

Programs like the Hour of Code can even inspire kids to go to college. When doctoral student Irene Manotas explained that she is getting paid to do research as part of her advanced degree, the kids paid attention to that message, too.

After explaining that Manotas is the equivalent of a “20th grader,” Jurist said, “In STEM fields, you don’t have to pay to go to graduate school — they pay you.”

From master’s student Melanie Salinas, the kids learned that computer science, biology and math can be combined in a field called bioinformatics, where researchers explore concepts that show molecules can be used to make medicines for diseases including leukemia and other cancers.

But kids can only take so much seriousness. About 45 minutes into the Hour of Code, the room was echoing with meowing computers — the result of a coding exercise that allowed the students to create color-changing animated cats that tumbled across the screen.

Jurist just shrugged at the noise.

“We have to make it fun for them,” she said.

Article by Diane Kukich

Video by Ashley Barnas

Photos by Evan Krape