Middle-schooler Kulsum Fatima of Orlando, left, and Chloe Dillman of Lakeland, right, who attends high school at McKeel Academy of Technology, were among the students who participated in twice-weekly virtual lessons in computer programming led by Dr. Jonathan Cazalas, an assistant professor of computer science at Florida Southern. (Submitted photos)
Jun 10, 2020
In mid-March, as schools around the state prepared to transition to distance learning due to COVID-19 concerns, Florida Southern College’s Dr. Jonathan Cazalas had an idea for community outreach with a technological twist.
The assistant professor of computer science was making plans to give his daughter some at-home lessons in programming, and he wondered whether other young students might be interested in a similar instructional program: a no-charge, Zoom-based, crash-course Python Boot Camp.
Python, a general-purpose programming language, is among the easier options for beginners to learn and would serve as an ideal learning platform for students as young as 14 to gain a basic understanding of computer coding and problem solving, Dr. Cazalas said.
He contacted Rebecca Stacey at Lakeland’s McKeel Academy of Technology to propose an informal partnership.
“Dr. Cazalas knew that I taught some computer science and robotics classes at McKeel,” said Stacey, an instructor on the Technology Team at the high-performance charter school for students in Grades 7 through 12. The FSC computer science faculty has a well-established relationship with McKeel Academy, anchored by the efforts of Dr. Matthew Eicholtz, a departmental colleague from FSC, who has made dozens of visits to assist their robotics program and to assist with special team events. “I so appreciate Dr. Cazalas including us.”
Stacey helped spread the word about the virtual Boot Camp to McKeel’s faculty and students, while also reaching out to other area students through Robotics Organized Builders Of Tampa, aka the R.O.B.O.T. League. More than 50 high school and middle-grade students registered for the twice-a-week training sessions; about half of the registrants were from schools outside of Lakeland.
Originally planned as a seven-week program — with each lesson and accompanying question period lasting about an hour and a half — the Boot Camp garnered sufficient interest to continue for two additional weeks. Between 25 and 30 attendees typically took part in each Zoom session, Dr. Cazalas said.
“I covered the same topics you would expect in an introductory-level college course,” he said. “I would give an introduction to the content, then they would break into groups to solve problems and share their screens. It required effort! The students who were very serious were jumping at those problems as soon as they were posted.”
Saleem Mohammed of Orlando mentioned the Boot Camp to his daughter, Kulsum Fatima, after hearing about it from Dr. Cazalas, a family friend. “The way he taught was really amazing. It helped Kulsum a lot, his ease of teaching,” Mohammed said. “She enjoyed the coding and she did all the problem-solving assignments.”
Although this was the rising seventh-grader’s first experience with computer programming, Kulsum seemed undaunted by the college-level sessions, her father said.
Chloe Dillman, 15, a rising sophomore at McKeel, called the Boot Camp a great learning experience: “Dr. Cazalas was very intuitive and helpful, and I appreciate the time that he took to offer this course twice a week. I learned a lot during the past few weeks, and I hope to continue to work on programming.”
Chloe’s mother, Lisa Marini-Scherer — an English teacher at Lakeland High School and a 2006 FSC graduate — said her daughter had taken an advanced-placement class in computer principles, but was unsure about the follow-up course. “She took this class with Dr. Cazalas, and she now did decide to take the second class.” Chloe is interested in becoming a veterinarian, Marini-Scherer said, “but these days, with computers, the more you know, the better you are.”
According to Stacey, students reported that the course made them feel empowered and more confident in their coding abilities.
“I love hearing that, especially from the girls,” Stacey said. “Some of the parents have mentioned to me that their students are now interested in Florida Southern.”
For his part, Dr. Cazalas is looking forward to future community outreach efforts, and is pleased to have formed new bonds with students from McKeel Academy and other schools in the region.
“We’re very hopeful some of them will join us at Florida Southern,” he said.
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