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Akins High School Summer Camp Offers Students a Bridge into Computer Sciences

Kate McGee, KUT News

Instead of going to a typical summer camp, this summer Chris Folwick and Jorge Sepulveda are crunching some numbers.

But Folwick and Sepulveda couldn't be happier. The two Akins High School students are a part of the STEMbridge program, which allows students to learn coding and develop useful computer science skills in a comprehensive four-week course.

This is the first summer the school has partnered with Austin nonprofit STEMed Labsto bring comprehensive, year-round computer science courses to the high school. It's put on with the help of a grant from the KDK Harmon Foundation.

Folwick and Sepulveda are playing Connect Four, but you won’t hear them playing with pieces. They’ve developed the game on the computer – by writing code.

For the past four weeks, the students have learned the basics of coding, but they say there were less computers than they thought there would be.

“We hardly went on the computer, it was all notebooks, lectures," Sepulveda says. "But, yeah, that’s technically what it is in programming. You have to do your logic first. You have to know and after that you go to the computer and figure out how to do it in the computer.”

Sepulveda compares looking at computer code like looking under the hood of the car.

“It’s like what happens under your desktop when you’re looking at your desktop."

Those who work in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields say it’s important to expose young students to different types of computer science jobs early.

Sagi Zisman is the co-founder of STEMbridge. He says a lot of schools in Texas don’t offer computer science classes.

"There are some obvious applications like working for Intel making computer chips. But there are other applications as well in other fields," Zisman says. "Most fields these days are becoming computational, even fields like biology with emerging technology in bioinformatics. A lot of those are inherently computational problems.”

And even if a school wanted to offer a class, it's difficult to find teachers. People qualified to teach things like coding can make much more money in the private sector. Last year, only a couple high schools in the Austin school district offered computer science courses. But last week, AISD officials said this fall, seven high schools will offer computer science. Some of that is due to new state graduation requirements. But Interim AISD Chief Schools Officer Edmund Oropez says the district also saw a need.

“We really saw it more as there was an opportunity to improve given because our city has placed such an emphasis on bringing in high tech companies and we see that there’s huge expansions here," says Oropez.

Recently, the school district also started to partner with private companies to show students how they could use computer science or programming in the future.

Camper Folwick says he just graduated high school and is headed to Texas A&M in the fall. Sepulveda will head back to Akins for his junior year of high school. Both say they want to pursue careers in programming as software engineers. Sepulveda says this camp opened his eyes to many possibilities.

“It was stressing sometimes, it would be hard, [but] it’s worth it," Folwick says. "We all learned a whole new programming language and we finally know assembly language."

This is the first summer STEMbridge hosted a summer camp in Austin, so there aren’t plans to hold another one this summer. But leaders say they’re working on other similar projects to possibly launch during the next school year.

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