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“Tech cats” code at Randolph

Nikitha Prabhu (left) and Shiloh Mack test their lego robot at the Tech Cats Coding Camp on Wednesday at Randolph College. (Photo by Jill Nance)

Nikitha Prabhu (left) and Shiloh Mack test their lego robot at the Tech Cats Coding Camp on Wednesday at Randolph College. (Photo by Jill Nance)

By Katrina Dix, News & Advance
Reprinted with permission

Adults might glaze over if the conversation turns to programming, but children haven’t learned to be intimidated, making them the perfect students for Tech Cats Coding Camp.

“You get kids interested in this stuff early … then they’re not going to blink,” said Katrin Schenk, who is leading the camp, now in its second year.

About 24 rising 3rd to 7th graders are attending the full-day camp this week, the second of two sessions for younger students. This year, a session for rising 8th through 12th graders will meet next week.

Schenk, a Randolph College physics professor and neuroscience researcher, sees coding as a tool rather than an end in itself. She started picking up programming skills as an undergraduate, finding them necessary for her academic research.

“A lot of times you have to simulate something. There are some things you want to do [that] only a computer can do,” she said.

Although it’s a coding camp, the children don’t spend the whole day in front of computers, or even most of it.

Irvin Putney codes his lego robot to test in a tiral run on the course at Tech Cats Coding Camp on Wednesday at Randolph College. (Photo by Jill Nance)

Irvin Putney codes his lego robot to test in a tiral run on the course at Tech Cats Coding Camp on Wednesday at Randolph College. (Photo by Jill Nance)

The day starts with hands-on activities and games designed to give students practice with math and programming concepts. Next, they spend some time working with “Scratch,” a drag-and-drop if-then coding tool available at scratch.mit.edu. The language is fairly sophisticated, Schenk said, and offers robust options for designing interactive stories, animations, games, music and art.

Zach Bowden, 11, described by camp staff as a computer whiz, said his love of programming turned on like a light switch after he was exposed to it at school and then got the chance to teach himself.

“I just fiddled with stuff … I’m just, like, obsessed with it,” he said. “One day I was like, ‘Can we do something else?’… and the next day I’m like, ‘Can we do this instead of something else?’”

Zach wants to write a more complicated, multiplayer game soon, and to learn to write code in Python, a high-level programming language.

In the afternoon, campers spend some time outside on the Randolph campus, which was part of the draw to move the camp from Holy Cross Regional Catholic School, where it originated last year.

“I feel like it’s great for kids to be in that college environment,” Schenk said.

In its first year, the camp received some funding from the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development, and the Region 2000 Future Focus foundation served as a partner along with Randolph College. This year, other than use of the space donated by Randolph, the camp is tuition-funded, Schenk said. Tuition for 3rd through 7th grade campers is $295, while the older students’ tuition is $200.

After spending time outside, campers sometimes hear from visitors in careers like engineering, before turning to building and programming LEGO robots and testing them on an obstacle course.

For Nikitha Pradhe, 10, the ability to see what she visualizes come to life is the most exciting part.

“You can just tell it to do what you want and it will do it. That’s pretty cool,” she said.

One of the camp’s counselors, Miosha Williams, a senior at Liberty University studying elementary education, said the campers seem to just absorb the new skills.

“I’ve been amazed at what kids this age can do,” she said. “To be so young, but to have so much knowledge.”



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