This week, middle and high school students from three states are learning how to code thanks to a popular UW-Eau Claire summer camp that has moved to a virtual format because of COVID-19.
“We’ve worked hard to move the format to a virtual setting so I am hoping it will again be a great experience for everyone participating in the Blugold Beginnings coding camp,” says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, executive director for diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire.
Thirty-eight youth from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Texas have enrolled in the weeklong virtual camp that will introduce them to the field of computer science.
Ten Serve Wisconsin AmeriCorps members — who also are UW-Eau Claire students — are serving as counselors for the program, which runs from July 13-17.
In addition, more than 15 volunteers from local tech firms will assist youth as they develop their coding skills throughout the week, Thesing-Ritter says, noting that tech professionals from around the world also will share recorded interviews with the camp participants.
“I’m so happy to have been part of the camp this year,” says Joe Rupslauskas, a camp volunteer who works in the engineering department at Jamf, an international technology company with offices in Eau Claire. “BBCC gives me the opportunity to continue working with kids, even if not directly via my full-time job.”
It’s especially rewarding to give students this kind of experience given the unprecedented end to their academic year and knowing that most summer programs were canceled because of the virus, says Rupslauskas, a 2013 UW-Eau Claire history graduate who also studied software development at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
“The last few months have been difficult on everyone, but I imagine it’s been especially difficult for kids in our community,” Rupslauskas says. “It is great to know that we can give kids and families at least one week of fun mental engagement and activity.”
Katie Albin, a fifth-grade teacher at Sherman Elementary School in Eau Claire, also is among the volunteers helping with the camp. Albin was a teacher participant in the camp in 2017 and has worked as a volunteer since then.
"I strongly believe in the importance of teaching kids coding,” Albin says. “Technology is an essential component to everyday life, and the more we can teach our students at younger ages, the better prepared they will be for their futures.”
As her students’ interest in technology has soared, Albin has worked to find ways to incorporate it into her teaching to ensure they are better prepared for their futures. The Blugold Beginnings camp offers yet another opportunity to encourage interest in coding among young people, she says.
"Many students today want a future career in technology,” says Albin, who earned her teaching degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2012 and her graduate degree in 2018. “The earlier they begin learning these skills, the better prepared they will be for their futures and the more engaged they'll be throughout their studies in school knowing they're working toward a career that truly interests them."
While the camp looks different this year because of the pandemic, it still is designed in a way that will get students excited about coding, says Albin, noting that the planning team worked hard to create a meaningful virtual experience for the students.
“I've worked with the camp for several years now, but this year going virtual was an entirely new experience,” Albin says. “The team had to come up with a curriculum that would work on a wide variety of devices and services the learning needs of the campers at a distance, all while being done virtually. In the end, I feel we created an excellent program that we'll be able to use in future camps as well."
Rupslauskas agrees, noting that finding ways to keep camp participants engaged without the face-to-face interactions was a challenge.
“Having been a part of the camp in years past with all the fun, face-to-face activities, I had some reservations as to whether or not it was even possible to bring it to an online platform,” Rupslauskas says. “In the end, we came up with a fun week of activities.”
So many people pitched in to make the virtual camp possible, and the long list of community volunteers will allow campers to work with real professionals in the field, he says.
Hopefully, Rupslauskas says, participants will learn about coding but also make connections with others who share their interests.
“This year, I really hope kids are able to connect with others virtually, develop an exciting new skill set and engage in something fun for the week,” Rupslauskas says.
The Jamf Nation Global Foundation again provided a grant to support the program.
For more information, contact Jodi Thesing-Ritter at email@example.com.
Photo caption: Chloe Kyro is a Blugold Beginnings counselor working with nearly 40 middle and high school students enrolled in a virtual coding camp.