Cultivating the next generation of tech wizards: FDU students teach K-12 students

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Above: Robert Loneker (left), a graduate student in FDU's M.S. Computer Science program teaching one of the coding club students. (Photos courtesy of Loneker)

By Kaidi Ilves

"Everyone needs to have at least some basic understanding of computers. We are doing our part in making coding and programming, which are the processes of creating computer software, apps and websites, more accessible to kids,” says Kiron Sharma, director of University Core and professor of computer science in the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus.

Kiron Sharma, who also directs the STEM Institute of Education (SIE), collaborates with school districts to offer professional development for K-12 teachers. She says, "Unfortunately, there are currently no teaching certificates available for coding in any of the 50 U.S. states, and thus, K-12 teachers are very much unprepared when it comes to coding. Lacking knowledgeable teachers, the kids in our school systems don't readily have access to coding."

With this in mind, Jyoti Sharma, the chair of the local chapter of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, approached Kiron Sharma (no relation) to explore another route — developing a coding program for the students directly, with IEEE sponsorship.

“We decided to start small and put our feelers out for an 8-week coding club at the Millburn school district, envisioning that maybe 20 kids or so would sign up,” says Kiron Sharma. The response was overwhelming — after the first day, 120 students had signed up and registration had to be closed. There are now 400 people on a waiting list.

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The club is split into two age groups, each consisting of 60 students. The groups meet once a week for an hour at a space provided by the school district. Teachers from the district help with managing the large classrooms; however, the actual material is taught by computer science students from FDU and Stevens Institute of Technology.

“There is a coding book I reference, but I have to create all the materials for the courses I teach,” says Robert Loneker, a graduate student in FDU’s M.S. Computer Science program, one of the five students teaching in the program. He continues, “It’s a lot of work, both preparing for the meetings, and actually being in front of such a large group of kids. The biggest difficulty is keeping their attention — we have students from 4th grade up, and it’s hard to keep them focused for a full hour.”

Interesting material helps keep the kids on task. Middle and high school students learn to program and code apps using JavaScript, which is text based. Elementary students are learning the logic in a more visual drag-and-drop format. “Coding is all about critical thinking, problem solving and designing solutions. That’s what we hope the kids get out of it,” says Kiron Sharma.

She continues, “Right now, we are focusing on getting all the waitlisted students into classes, and since the teachers who attend are trying to learn as they go, we are also going to hold a professional development program for them, to get them more acquainted with the material.”