Beyond Limits Coding to close the gap
STAMFORD — Charlotte Primo’s Chromebook screen displayed floating images of gallons of milk, humans, and one black cat.
To an outsider, the imagery may look like nonsense, but at the Beyond Limits computer science class in Stamford, it’s just another successful assignment.
The task was to write code that would create an animation inspired by the 1979 arcade game Asteroids with the milk and humans, in Primo’s case, scrolling across the screen while the player directed the cat up and down, attempting to capture as many milk jugs as possible and dodge the competing humans.
Here’s how the Scofield Magnet Middle School sixth-grader described it: “Cats love milk. Humans love milk too, I guess, so the human is trying to get the milk, but the cat wants the milk too. So, the human is the enemy.”
All around the classroom inside the Stamford Peace Youth Foundation on a Thursday afternoon, middle school students were working on their own version of the game.
Nathalee Polacarz, a Scofield sixth-grader, created one in which the player controls a spaceship, trying to collect aliens while avoiding asteroids.
Adiel Crosby, also a Scofield sixth-grader, made one where the player maneuvers hockey star Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who tries to grab hockey pucks and avoid goalies.
Patrick Burkat, yet another sixth-grade Scofield student, created a soccer-themed game, in which you control a goalie. The objective is to capture as many balls as possible, dodging oncoming soccer players.
Offered for the first time this year, the Beyond Limits free eight-week computer coding class is made possible with funding from Amazon Future Engineer, a program that offers computer science learning opportunities for underserved and low-income youth. The final class is Thursday.
The program is not cost-free for Stamford Peace, however, as the organization paid for two instructors to be in the classroom with the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students and bought some Chromebooks for the course.
For many of the 16 middle school boys and girls in the class, this course represents one of their first forays into coding.
That’s mainly the point, said Andy Sklover, co-founder of the Beyond Limits program.
“It’s all about leveling the playing field for us,” Sklover said, referring to the fact that the program is offered to students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Brian Kriftcher, co-founder of Stamford Peace Youth Foundation, said there are many extracurricular options available to children of affluent families, but not so much for low-income students.
“Affluent kids are trying to get every single advantage,” he said. “So, you don’t need tutoring, but you enroll in tutoring; you don’t need college prep assistance, but you go for college prep assistance; and it’s become this mega business.”
“Every strip mall has a for-profit tutoring center, and that’s not for low-income kids,” he added. “And so, the gap that has always existed has just gotten wider. So, we’re trying to shrink that gap.”
During the course, students from five middle schools were introduced to the Python programming language, described as an entry point for students to learn a professional-level coding language. The language is a step up from Scratch, an easy-to-use drag-and-drop programming tool that many of the students in the class had already used.
Sklover said that coding has shown to be beneficial in helping students with math, by making it more enjoyable to learn.
“We read about the benefits of coding and the application to math,” he said. “The critical thinking and problem-solving piece of coding works really well with math, to bring it more to life and put context to it.”
Besides the coding class, Beyond Limits provides math and science tutoring six days a week to approximately 175 students during the academic school year.
While this program was just a one-off, Sklover said there’s a possibility they may offer a high school-level coding class, and he expects there will be more opportunities to offer similar courses in the future.
Sydney Eben, a junior in the Westhill High School computer science class, and Francis Alvaro, a 2017 Westhill High School graduate and computer science major in his freshman year at UConn-Stamford, are the two on-site teachers.
Eben said it took a few weeks for the students to really grasp the Python technology.
The third-to-last-class was the first time she felt the students were really getting it.
“It’s difficult to be thrown into a language like this,” she said.
“If you make one little mistake, like for instance, if you put a lowercase letter (when an uppercase letter is needed), it’s not going to work,” Primo said.
Alvaro, who didn’t have access to a coding class when he was in middle school, said such a course would have been immensely beneficial to him.
“It would have made the ease of going into computer science a much smoother transition,” the UConn student said.