It began with a request and a meeting. A group of students at Pocahontas County High School wanted to learn computer coding, and math coach Joanna Burt-Kinderman wanted to expand the collaboration between the schools and the Green Bank Observatory.
Burt-Kinderman met with the Observatory and brainstormed ideas on how to offer coding and computer science at PCHS. In that group was computer scientist Ray Creager and software engineer Paul Marganian.
Creager volunteered to help math teacher Laurel Dilley teach computer science one day a week, and now, Marganian has joined in and is helping math teacher Jennifer Nail teach engineering one day a week.
“The instigator was Joanna Burt-Kinderman,” Creager said, laughing. “She came to the Observatory and talked to a bunch of us. I said, ‘Sure, I’d like to do that.’ I got here twenty-years ago [in the county]. I’d been coaching soccer, refereeing, too, and I was getting a little old for that. I didn’t want to coach soccer anymore. I needed something else.”
That something else led him to Dilley’s classroom, where Creager was not only teaching the students, but the teacher, as well.
“The kids were begging for a coding class, and I was like, ‘well I like what I’ve done on ConAcademy, but that’s a total of three hours of coding,’” Dilley recalled. “Ray agreed to join up with us, and I went to a training over the summer just to learn some of the basics of coding. We just grew from there.
“There’s no way I would have had the confidence to instruct this on my own,” she continued. “Now, I feel semi-comfy because I’ve had a teacher for five years.”
The program began with one class, and in the past five years, has grown to include two AP courses in computer science along with regular computer science and engineering.
In the introductory and regular level computer science classes, the students learn to code in Python – a program Creager is proficient in. While it may seem the students are only learning to create a language for computers to read, there is much more involved.
“It exercises your brain,” Creager said. “It teaches you to learn critically and solve problems, and use logic to solve problems. It doesn’t matter if you then go on to become a journalist, cop, teacher or horticulturist – you can use that problem solving in anything you do.”
On the days Creager is not in class, Dilley leads the students through their coding adventures and has seen growth in the confidence and abilities of her students in a short time.
“I’ve seen a huge increase in the kids’ perseverance since having these two classes,” she said. “They don’t get as frustrated when something doesn’t work as they used to, and I think that’s just because they’re so used to troubleshooting. When you write code, there’s most likely going to be a problem every single time, if not multiple problems. They’re just really good about it now, and I have seen the frustration level go down.”
After seeing the success of the computer science classes, Dilley and Nail decided to add engineering last year. Like Dilley, Nail went to training seminars to learn more about engineering on a high school level and Marganian was enlisted to share his expertise.
“Last year was the first year they had the engineering class, and I was helping out with that,” Marganian said. “We were making it up as we were going along. It was a lot of fun, but it was also kind of chaotic. We only had one of these robots halfway through the year, and I had to teach myself what was going on.”
Marganian was used to working with students with robotics, as he and his wife, Karen O’Neal, were coaching the Green Bank Lego robotics team.
At the high school, Marganian used his robotics knowledge to grow a robotics team with Vex robots.
“[The first year], we managed to go to a competition, and it was a total blast,” he said. “We did much better than I would have expected. It was entertaining. We have a much better clue of what we’re doing this year. We’ve got [four] robots. We got these thanks to the grant writing that Jennifer and Laurel did.”
The students learn to build and program the Vex robots to do various actions, including follow a certain path down the hallway, pick up blocks or stack blocks. The class has two teams that plan to participate in the Vex robotics competition this fall.
“This is not Battlebots, but there is contact,” Marganian said. “It’s a contact sport, absolutely. Under certain circumstances, you’re even allowed to play defensively. You are not allowed to crash them, but stuff happens.”
As a software engineer, Marganian said he is well-versed in one aspect of robotics, but there is much more to it than just programming computers.
“There are two aspects to what we’re doing with these robots,” he said. “There’s software engineering because we’re actually programming these guys, and I’m totally competent to teach that part. Then the other aspect is mechanical engineering, where you’re actually changing the mechanics. The idea is the students are going to take these apart and then rebuild them, but design them specifically to perform well in this competition.
“My degree’s in physics, so I can understand a lot of these things in theory, but I’m not a mechanical engineer, so I’m hoping to pull in some help from the Observatory on that aspect of it.”
After the competition season, Marganian said he will work with the students using SparkFun Inventor’s Kits. These kits come with circuit boards and wiring to create different projects where the students can experiment with sound, movement and lights.
Dilley and Nail have added an element to their classes this year to give students specific problems to solve that involve environmental engineering.
“They’ve done a lot of research for environmental problems in the world, but right now their project is to design the most eco-friendly house they possibly can,” Dilley said. “One of them is taking a Barbie house and redoing it. We’re really excited. Another one is doing a diorama and we’re really excited to see them. The kids are doing an awesome job.”
The students have taken to the environmental aspect and have learned more about the impact we humans have on the Earth.
“The ecosystem project makes you think about things that you wouldn’t normally think about,” senior Sierra Rodriguez said. “Even just drinking Starbucks in the morning with a glass straw.”
“I like the other parts of the engineering class, too, like the eco-friendly housing stuff we’re doing right now,” junior Alan Gibson added.
The interesting outcome of the students taking the classes, is they have strong opinions about what they prefer and many plan to, at the very least, continue taking computer science and engineering classes as electives in college.
“I had the engineering class last year,” Bostic said. “The coding is a lot more logic-based than the engineering, and I like that a lot more.”
“This is my first year doing computer science or engineering, and I just think it’s cool that you can learn how the computer works, and then the engineering part, you can express your ideas and creativity,” senior Dakin Rexrode said.
“All of these kids are also fantastic problem solvers,” Dilley said.
The program has grown in the past five years and will continue growing in the future. Dilley said she has had Christine Rebinski, a computer technologist, to show the students the inner workings of computers, by helping them take computers apart and put them back together.
The program has also spilled over into the business education classes where Cammy Kesterson is teaching web design, game design and other computer-based programs.
The success of the program boils down to those involved, and Dilley and Nail are the first to say that without Creager and Marganian, they would not have been able to grow the classes to what they are now.
“Ray and Paul have given up so much time to come into our classes,” Dilley said. “Although it’s only ten percent or twenty percent of our class, it’s having that exposure to someone who is in the industry in these fields and is just fifteen minutes down the road. It’s amazing.
“GBO has been very generous with giving us grants to get robotics and giving [Ray and Paul] permission to use their work time to come here.”