ROCKINGHAM — Student residents of the Rockingham Housing Authority are learning to code, decode and solve problems as part of a collaborative afterschool STEM program.
Tuesday afternoon, participants gathered in a classroom at Falling Creek Park, logged in to their virtual online classroom and began working to complete a series of lessons.
Yahonna Wilson, a fourth-grader at Washington Street School, was coding in Python to help her solve a math problem. She wants to be a gymnast when she grows up, but said she enjoys coding.
Nearby, Wilson’s friend, Aziya Palmer, also of Washington Street School, was working on a different assignment to help her with math. She wants to be a baker when she grows up.
Jeff Epps of Richmond County Schools and the STEMerald City learning center said it takes two generations for a family to rise to a higher economic and educational class. In his case, he represents the first generation while his two sons are the second.
“I remember as a kid, we would play this game with my mom,” Epps said. “It was called ‘Campout.’ And I loved to play campout. It was my favorite thing to do until the day I realized the reason we were camping out was because the power had been cut off.”
Epps said he wanted more out of life, so he immersed himself in education and ultimately became an educator in order to help others.
“My sons have never known what it’s like to wonder if the power is going to be on, or where dinner was coming from,” he explained. “They’ve never experienced that. So they’re the second generation. For them, going to college seems normal because that’s what they’ve grown up seeing.”
Epps said the kids in the housing authority’s program will be the first generations of their families to emerge into a brighter future.
Anna Jasper, who attends the North Carolina Virtual Academy, was focused on her work.
“Right now I’m doing assignment 12,” she said. “I’m not really sure what it’s about because I just finished up my last assignment. Assignment 11, it’s like a word problem, but we have to find the length of four tables, four floors that basically you only have one piece of information to do the whole thing with. I’m trying to complete the whole assignment and get started learning how to make my own video game.”
Asked what kind of video game she hopes to create, Jasper said she wasn’t sure just yet.
“It’s something similar to crafting, like doing what you want to do in the game. And something that involves killing and stuff. So kind of a combination of different games.”
Jasper has worked with code before.
“I did some programming last year, cause I’m in the Girl Scouts and we did at our Girl Scout camp,” she said. “So this is my second year working on doing codes.”
When she grows up, she wants to be president of the United States.
“Mom told me I have to be a lawyer, then a judge, and then the president,” she explained. “I want to be a president so I can make the world a better place and help poor kids and stuff, and give them a place to live. I’m really caring about the people and the poor and how people are hurting them.”
She said her idea of becoming president was inspired by the loss of a beloved family pet.
“I had this dog, and I loved him very much, but we had to give him away for us to live up here,” Jasper said.
Jasper’s brother, Elijah, said he likes the online learning format and is also excited about next week.
“Because next week, we’re going to create our own video game,” he said. “I want to make a tank versus tank…Maybe it will be like Roblox cancer inside of Minecraft. I can put animation in it, too.”
Xanyah Malry, who worked at her own pace on assignment 11, said she enjoys the after-school program and never feels too tired to attend.
“When I grow up, I don’t really know what I want to be,” she said. “All I know is I like things that go, ‘BOOM!’ That’s what I like.”
“It’s amazing with this program,” Epps said. “The students show up here, and even on days when I get here late, they’ve already got the computers out. They’re set up and already logged in, and they’re working on the lessons. This particular program is a partnership with STEMerald City.”
Epps said Teraefean Goodwin of the housing authority pitched him the idea after reading about last summer’s technology camps in the Daily Journal. She originally asked for consideration for a program to begin in summer, 2017.
“I started working here in July, and we were brainstorming for ideas for the next year for our Moving Futures Forward program,” Goodwin said. “We were doing our summer program at the time, but we were talking about what we wanted to do for our afterschool program. How the STEM program came about, I was working with a lady at the literacy council and she was telling me about her grandson being part of (Epps’) program.”
Goodwin said that friend gave her contact information for Epps, and he invited her to RCC to observe the summer program he was working with at the time.
“I liked what I saw,” she said. “They were doing the 3-D modeling at the time, and I was very interested. We’ve kept in touch ever since.”
“I just said, ‘Why are you going to wait until next summer? Now’s the time to get started.’ So we put our heads together,” Epps explained. “They’ve contracted with STEMerald City to provide STEM curriculum for their afterschool program. These are middle-schoolers, and we have one fourth-grader, but we’re still exposing her to sixth-grade math. They started out with sixth-grade ratios and proportions using Python coding. However, we’ve started to ease them into Math I.”
Epps said that while students are being exposed to elements in Math I, mastery of it is not the goal.
“It’s about mastering the process of coding — which is no different than mastering the process of writing,” he said. “Coding deals with syntax. You’re taking foreign syntax and putting it into a logical sequence that can be understood by a computer. This is the same thing that happens when they are writing a paper in English. If they miss a period, or they miss some punctuation, or if they have a noun or a verb in the wrong place — their English teacher is going to mark off for that. Well, the computer does the same thing in the form of an error.”
This, he believes, has a transformative effect on how students tackle reading comprehension, science and math.
“What’s most important, what’s key, is they are learning the soft skills that they need to be better students,” Epps said. “They are going to undergo 64 hours of coding from now until May. What we’ve learned is that this changes their academic paradigm. It changes the way they approach a problem. It changes the way they go about solving a problem. They’re learning to code, and decode. They have to decode what they’ve done to bring meaning from it.”
The three skills impressed upon the students, Epps said, are logical thinking, problem-solving and inferring.
“They’re learning all the soft skills that are needed,” he said. “So when the fourth-grader finishes her 64 hours of code, her soft skills will be at the same level as these middle-school students. When she enters the fifth-grade, she’ll be ready to tackle any problem that’s thrown at her, just as when they enter the next grade level. I’m just excited that the housing authority reached out to STEMerald City to do that, and we definitely want more agencies and more entities to reach out to organizations like STEMerald City and Richmond Community College, organizations that have advanced technology and have advanced curriculum.”
For several years, Epps has championed the idea of a sort of “pipeline” that connects students to opportunity and success in the world — the same pipeline Richmond County hopes will produce a highly-skilled workforce of engineers, programmers and designers.
“These kids are part of one pipeline,” he said. “The goal here is for these kids to enter college before they even graduate high school. These students will either dual-enroll — which means they can take high school courses and college courses at the same time — or they can qualify for early college high school, and in the ninth-grade enter the early college at RCC and graduate with a two-year degree.”
Epps said this will open the door for these first-generation up-and-comers to achieve high-paying jobs.
“The housing authority has now upped its game,” he concluded. “So I want to say to other entities out there, the housing authority’s in the game, and they’ve upped their game, and they are now exposing their students to real-world technology and real-world skills that are going to help them in the classroom. And we just hope other agencies will follow that example, whether it’s with STEMerald City or anybody else.”
Goodwin said she is already inspired to take the next step.
“I want it to grow,” she said. “I want it to be bigger. I want more of the residents involved. I also want to reach out to the community to bring them in, but we’re going to stay focused on housing authority residents for now.”
Rockingham Housing Authority residents who want to enroll their children in the after-school program should call 910-997-3316 and ask to speak to Ms. Goodwin.
For more information on starting or expanding a STEM program, visit www.stemeraldcity.com or call 910-433-3404.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.