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Teaching Kids to Code

Corin Rose ’20 took some programming courses in high school and knew he wanted to major in computer science when he enrolled at Vassar. Marian Lam ’19 planned to major in English at Vassar and had little interest in how computers worked before she got here. But after she took an introductory course in her first year, Lam abruptly decided to major in computer science.

VC++, Vassar’s computer programming club, runs a weekend mentoring program for Poughkeepsie high school students.

Rose, who attended a high school in Jonesboro, ME, that offered high-tech classes, says he appreciated the benefit of starting college with some programming skills. Lam, of Chino, CA, says she discovered how much catching up she had to do to pursue her major without such prior experience in coding. And that’s why Rose and Lam were happy to collaborate with other members of Vassar’s computer programming club, VC++, in launching a mentoring program, dubbed VC++igniteCS, for high school students this fall.

On five Saturday afternoons, nine Vassar students met with 10 students from five local high schools in a computer lab on the third floor of Sanders Physics to introduce them to the world of coding. At each session, members of VC++ (a pun alluding to the popular programming language C++) delivered lectures explaining the workings of Python, a programming language used by Google and other major tech firms. During the lectures, others in the club sat with the high school students and helped them understand the material and then assisted them in completing some coding exercises.

Marian Lam ’19, one of the cofounders of VC++igniteCS, works with one of her mentees on a coding exercise.

The sessions were scheduled to run from 3 to 4:30 p.m., but at one session, everyone was still hard at work at 4:45. Tania Hernandez-Martinez, a sophomore at Poughkeepsie High School, says she appreciated the Vassar students’ efforts. “Our mentors are really helpful,” Hernandez-Martinez says. “They’re right there with us every step of the way; they make it easy to learn.”

“In the end, our greatest validation was seeing our mentees come back the following weekend, ready to learn more about programming.”

Braden Darragh, a senior at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, enrolled in a computer science class at his school this fall. When his teacher told him about sessions offered by VC++, Darragh says, he signed up the next day. “I plan to major in computer science in college, and anything I can do to get a jump on my education, I want to do it,” he says. “I’ve never used Python before, and it’s a useful language to know. And the coaches here at Vassar are ready and eager to help us. We’re all learning a lot really quickly.”

Rose says he enjoyed spending time teaching his slightly younger peers. “I know how frustrating it can be writing code and hitting a roadblock,” he says, “so we’re right here with them helping them over the hurdles. It’s a great feeling to see the light go on in their faces.”

Students from five local high schools attended the coding workshops in Sanders Physics.

Lam says that while the concept for the course was modeled after a curriculum developed by Google, members of VC++ developed the material for the sessions that were given this fall. “We held a series of Google-funded introduction-to-robotics workshops last spring,” she says. “But this semester, Google changed how igniteCS worked, resulting in a removal of the funding model. So we decided to do something that didn't require us to purchase additional supplies—something more practical and feasible.” 

VC++ members held multiple planning sessions to develop the course, and they ran weekly sessions this fall to make sure each of the lecture topics built on the one that had been given the previous week, Lam explains. “It was a huge, collective team effort to make each workshop as meaningful to our mentees and as successful by our own standards as possible,” she says. “In the end, our greatest validation was seeing our mentees come back the following weekend, ready to learn more about programming.”