Cracking the Code

Young students program robots Tech Cats Coding Camp.

Program teaches computer skills to area youth

Young students program robots Tech Cats Coding Camp.For a few weeks this summer, a normally quiet corridor of Main Hall was overtaken by robots, Legos, and groups of excited, chattering children. Part of Randolph’s Tech Cats Coding Camp, the young students could be seen programming their robots on computers in a nearby lab before rushing out to the hallway to watch the creations tackle obstacles.

Sometimes, the robots completed the challenges flawlessly—to the cheers of the campers. When they didn’t, the students returned to the computers, determined to figure out the problem and succeed on the next try.

In just its second year, the Tech Cats Coding Camp is led by Katrin Schenk, a Randolph physics professor. Randolph partnered with the Future Focus Foundation to offer the program, which features two, one-week sessions for students in third through seventh grade and a week specifically geared for students in eighth grade through high school. The program is part of a larger effort at Randolph to make science more accessible and appealing to children in the community. Camps for both age groups are designed to offer students a unique summer camp experience that teaches computer coding and programming, as well as critical thinking and problem- solving skills.

Young students program robots Tech Cats Coding Camp.“In today’s job market, computer programming is one of the most lucrative skills you can have, for sure. It’s also very easy to get a job in that field,” Schenk said. “But besides those things, learning to code is kind of like a backdoor to learning math and critical thinking. Kids have to understand math in order to know how to make their games work, and when they make them in these camps they don’t even realize they’re doing a bunch of math and physics.”

Another part of the camp’s appeal to local families is its affordability and schedule. Nathan Bowden said the camp schedule accommodated parents who worked full-time while also providing his son, Zach, an enriching experience.

“We found similar camps in cities like Alexandria and Atlanta, but were very pleased when we found the opportunity at Randolph,” said Bowden. “It was a significantly better value than anything else that was available, and it was the only opportunity available locally.”

Carla Fedeler’s daughter, Catherine, participated in the high school camp.

“Catherine commented to me that she loved the laid-back atmosphere and the ability to explore and work at her own pace,” said Fedeler. “She worked on her projects for hours at home, and we all loved that she could connect with her brother, who is studying computer science at NC State.”

Young students program robots Tech Cats Coding Camp.Schenk hopes to expand the camp program again next year to offer an overnight component for high school students that will allow teens from across the country to participate.

“This summer, the high school camp was only about four hours a day, and that is just not enough time,” said Schenk. “But in the coming year, they’re going to be here about eight hours a day for the actual work and get to do extracurricular stuff after that. I feel like we’ll be able to accomplish a lot more in that bigger chunk of time.”

The lessons taught at the camp go far beyond simple computer basics, Schenk added.

“Even if these students never become computer programmers, the skills they learn here are going to become more and more pervasive,” she said. “They’re going to be in jobs where they have to code, even if they’re not considered a computer programmer, and I think these skills should be introduced to them as early as possible.”