Kids who code

At GenCyber Boot Camp, Memphis students get lessons in coding — and exposure to hot careers

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Joshua Williams, a student at Central High School, learns about coding with the help of Terricka Muhammed, a teaching assistant at the University of Memphis.

Pushing up his glasses on the bridge of his nose, Joshua Williams focuses on lines of computer code projected onto a wall inside of a University of Memphis lecture hall.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A simulated program allows campers to use computer coding to control the movements of a virtual cat.

A rising sophomore at Central High School, Williams moves his fingers adroitly across a keyboard to spell out various commands. With each keystroke, he moves a virtual cat back and forth across his computer screen. Cheers erupt around the room as other students complete the same exercise.

Williams is among Memphis students who aren’t resting this summer while schools are on summer break. Taking advantage of free camps like the GenCyber Boot Camp, many are learning the language of computers and developing skills related to programming.

For a second straight summer, the University of Memphis recently hosted two week-long coding camps to show middle and high school students the ropes of coding with Java through games and simulations. Funded jointly by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation, the GenCyber camps aim to train the next generation of cybersecurity professionals to fill the more than 1 million lucrative jobs open in the growing field, as well as to encourage young people to practice safe online behaviors.

The Memphis camps are among 131 happening this year in 39 states. The University of Memphis was tapped as a host because of the school’s cybersecurity research program through its nationally recognized Center for Information Assurance.

The city also provides GenCyber with a platform for exposing low-income students to a marketable skill that many aren’t developing through their daily public school courses.

Organizers actively sought out students from Shelby County Schools to participate after learning that only three of its schools offer Advanced Placement computer science. Recruiters visited schools and community centers to talk up the camp, eventually drawing about half of their campers from the urban district, said Kelly Freeman, a project assistant.

While GenCyber is focused on cybersecurity and coding for that purpose, Shelby County Schools is trying to get all of its students up to speed with basic computer science skills.

Chief information officer John Williams wants the district’s students eventually to gain coding skills in the lowest grade levels — and especially to reach youngsters who have never been exposed to computer science.

Toward that end, district leaders are working to establish school-by-school guidelines to measure how teachers and students use technology. A survey of students, parents and teachers is in the works to learn “where they think we are and where they think we ought to be going,” he said.

“If we make it a priority, we’ll have the money to do it. I’m pushing the envelope along with our chief of schools to say this is a priority. It’s not an optional thing and it’s not a magic bullet. If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate,” Williams said.

Memphis schools may also get an additional assist from the University of Memphis. The school’s Center for Information Assurance is working on a year-round program to dispatch computer science staff to various schools to train local teachers about cybersecurity and computer skills. The idea is for local teachers eventually to integrate cybersecurity practices into their own classroom lessons.

“This is a field that is constantly changing, so if something is one or two years old, it has no value,” said Dipankar Dasgupta, a professor of computer science and the center’s founding director. “Unless people are continuously upgrading their knowledge, it is very difficult to keep up with what is happening.”

"If we don’t get our kids educated on the use of technology, they will not be prepared for college, career or anything else when they graduate."John Williams, SCS chief information officer

The relevance of computer technology has been championed by the two most recent presidential administrations. President Barack Obama called it “a basic skill, right along with the three Rs,” while President Donald Trump has called for additional funding to bolster the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and counterterrorism efforts.

In Memphis, the GenCyber camps are a small step in the right direction. To make the camps fun and to break down the mechanics of coding, instructors use Greenfoot, a visual program heavy on games and simulations.

Coding lessons are taught by a computer science professor at the university. Campers also hear from guest speakers about online safety and work on a team project to present to a panel of judges at the end of the week.

For Paloma Mirelez, a 15-year-old student at Germantown High School, the camp helped to fuel her interest to become an engineer. Her mother encouraged her to enroll.

“It’s cool because we get to make things,” Mirelez said. “The Greenfoot program makes coding fun.”


Impressed by Memphis students planning April walkout, Hopson gives his blessing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout on April 20 to protest gun violence in the wake of this year's shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday that students who walk out of Memphis schools next month to protest gun violence will not be punished.

He also invited student organizers of the April 20 demonstration to speak April 24 to the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools “so our community can hear from these wonderful, thoughtful students.”

Hopson met Wednesday with about a dozen student leaders from district high schools, including White Station, Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven and Freedom Preparatory Academy.

“Based on this incredible presentation, I have agreed to be supportive of the walkout, as long as it’s done in an orderly fashion and as long as we work some of the details out,” Hopson said after the meeting.

“No students will be suspended or expelled for taking part in this event. No teachers will be disciplined for being supportive of these students,” he said.

At least six Memphis-area high schools are planning student walkouts on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

Shelby County students did not participate in the March 14 nationwide walkout because Shelby County Schools and other local districts were on spring break. That walkout, which was held on the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, pushed for stricter gun laws and memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout is part of a related nationwide “day of action” that encourages school events focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Hopson’s declarations put to rest concerns that students might be punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech while the district also seeks to ensure school safety. Earlier this month, school districts in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey threatened students with unexcused absences, detention, and disciplinary action if they participated in the March 14 walkout.

Most of the student organizers in Memphis are involved in BRIDGES, a program that brings students together across racial and socio-economic divides to discuss civic issues.

Hopson called their walkout plan “one of the most amazing presentations I’ve ever seen.”

Many Memphis-area students also plan to participate Saturday in the related nationwide “March for Our Lives.” More details on the local march are available here.

By the numbers

Fewer children land on waitlists as New York City reveals final kindergarten applications tally

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

The number of incoming kindergarteners waitlisted at their local school fell by 45 percent this year, New York City’s education department announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, for a third straight year, 10 percent of kindergarten applicants were shut out of all the schools they applied to completely.

Just 590 kindergarten applicants were placed on waitlists this year, compared to 1,083 a year ago, according to the city’s admissions tally. Overall, 67,728 families applied for kindergarten by the Jan. 19 deadline — more than 1,400 fewer than applied on time last year.

City officials said they attribute the decline in applications to a fluctuation in the school-age population, rather than an obstacle in getting families to apply. Last year’s pre-kindergarten population was smaller than the previous year’s, so a smaller kindergarten class was expected, according to Doug Cohen, a Department of Education spokesman.

Not many schools are affected by the declining waitlist numbers: There are 50 schools with kindergarten waitlists this year, compared to 54 a year ago.

Waitlists typically clear over the spring and summer, as families opt for schools outside of their zone, including private or charter schools, or relocate out of the city. But each year, some kindergartners are assigned to schools outside of their zone — an issue that typically affects a few crowded neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.

Half of the schools with waitlists had five or fewer children on them. Three schools had waitlists with more than 60 children: PS 196 and P.S. 78 in Queens and P.S. 160 in Brooklyn.