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Monday, September 8, 2014

Coding apps made easy at high school summer camp

Written By Yannic Rack

Scientific research, robotics and coding – that doesn’t necessarily sound like every kid’s dream of the perfect summer. But 16 high school students from all over New York City, New Jersey and as far away as Yonkers, chose to spend two weeks of their vacation doing exactly that at Pace University’s annual STEM Collaboratory Camp.

The program took place at the university’s Downtown campus for the second time this summer where the students, including two from Downtown schools, developed and designed mobile applications, or apps, based around this year’s theme of cyber security.

If that sounds impressive, then so were the finished apps that the teens presented to family, faculty and newly made friends at a reception last month at Pace’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.

Using software ranging from CSS and HTML to JavaScript, one of the groups, consisting of four students each, developed a trivia game to teach users the basics of cyber security. Another put together a survey that informs honest participants about their online behavior and how they can improve their safety on the web.

Learning to code is no piece of cake, said Laureen Chan, a senior at Stuyvesant High School and first-time participant. “In sophomore year my school implemented a mandatory year-long course on computer science and we learned Netlogo, Java, Python, HTML – all that stuff,” she said. “I actually didn’t think I would like comp sci, it was a lot of work.”

Nonetheless, Chan and her team ambitiously called themselves F.O.C.S., short for “Future of Cyber Security,” and came up with an app that lets users manage their wifi hotspot and allow or block other devices from connecting to it. Chan said that working with faculty from Pace and college-level mentors made coding and STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, much more accessible.

Jeremy Eng, a 15-year-old sophomore at Millenium High School in Lower Manhattan, was last to present his group’s app. The aptly titled “Phisher” lets you scan your social media accounts for content you once uploaded, but might not want someone in particular to see – say a college board or a possible employer.

Eng became interested in coding when a friend started making apps on iOS, Apple’s operating system, and said he would even consider a career in the field. During the presentation, Eng said that everybody likes their privacy, even if they have nothing to hide. “I love to lock my door when I go to the bathroom, for example,” he joked.

The program was jointly sponsored by Pace and AT&T, which organized a tour of its facilities as part of the camp, as did Google. Jonathan Hill, associate dean at the Seidenberg School and co-director of the STEM Collaboratory, thinks the program has the potential to teach the students much more than just the technical skills of coding.

“These kids, some of them live in areas where there’s no broadband Internet access. They can’t afford to have a computer at home, but by and large they have smart phones, and the smart phones are their connection to the world. So we want them to use that connecting tool in a good, smart, safe way.”

At the end of their presentations, the teens promised to keep in touch with each other, something Hill thinks is potentially the greatest achievement of the program. “Some of them are from badly under-served public schools, and some of them are from very good private schools,” Hill said.

“They wouldn’t know each other in the course of their daily lives, but here they get to know each other, and they’re the future of our city. Twenty years from now they’ll be on the same subway getting off here at Fulton Center to go to work in one of these towers, and if we start those relationships now, think of the cool things they’re going to do together. That’s what it’s about.”

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