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Coding Meets Community

By Megan Jonas

Friday night, and a campus computer lab is full of teenagers who have chosen to spend their evening learning about science and technology. Although the colorful images on their screens appear to be games, the students, grades 7-12, are actually learning about coding. Two Whitworth computer science majors circle the room, providing help and asking the students if they have thought about college for their future.

This was the scene at one station during STEMplosion, a yearly event that brings about 100 Mead School District students to Whitworth University.

It's one of many ways the Whitworth Mathematics & Computer Science Department provides much-needed support for computer science education in the community.

"Every high school and junior high is trying to build out more CS classes," says Pete Tucker '91, professor of mathematics & computer science. "The demand is so high at that level, and they just don't have enough teachers with the background."

Tucker began teaching at his alma mater in 2003 after working for Microsoft. Several years ago, he joined an association of Spokane computer science teachers with the goal of supporting K-12 education. Through this group, Tucker has helped create opportunities for Whitworth students to share their knowledge with K-12 students.

"I want to keep developing our students' hearts for community," he says.

Perhaps the biggest way Whitworth students are making an impact is through CS Outreach, a course in which students assist in CS classes at local schools. Tucker formed the elective four years ago to infuse more expertise and enthusiasm in those area classes. The outreach course has generated "remarkable interest" from Whitworth students, he says. "I tell students, 'Go out in the classroom and see where you're most needed.'"

Tommy (Glasser) Kim '15 says CS Outreach was "super rewarding" and credits Tucker for helping spark his interest in education and nonprofits. After graduating, Kim worked at PRIDE Prep charter school in Spokane, where he provided information technology support and helped develop computer science curriculum. He is now an information technology specialist at the nonprofit Degrees of Change and is still involved in education.

"The CS Outreach class really inspired me to want to teach computer science in a volunteer capacity in my community," Kim says.

Computer science major Madi Binyon '21 would like to work in the video game industry. But thanks in part to her experience in CS Outreach, she plans to join AmeriCorps first to teach computer science.

"A lot of students say all they like is video games, but what they don't realize is that you can love video games and be a computer scientist – those two things really go hand in hand," she says. "I realized during CS Outreach that I want to help students realize how they can transform their passions into their vocation."

Whitworth students also serve local students by interning at summer STEM camps, offering coding lessons to fourth-graders on Community Building Day, and volunteering at an annual "hackathon."

"All these opportunities for outreach and volunteering certainly help grow the heart," Tucker says. "And the CS ethics course we offer helps students think critically and ethically about what they're doing."

At Spokathon, an overnight hackathon, high school and middle school students build software projects in teams. College students – typically including 10-15 Whitworth students – provide mentorship.

Kostiantyn Makrasnov '21 participated in the Spokathon in high school and is now a mathematics & computer science double major at Whitworth.

"At the hackathon, college volunteers were able to help us with programming concepts that we weren't yet familiar with," he says. While he was already set on studying computer science in college, he says, "The hackathon spiked my interest even more as it showed me that with the right knowledge, there is really no limit to what can be done with code.

For the past two years, Makrasnov has returned to Spokathon as a volunteer. "By volunteering, I hoped that I would be able to trigger the same discoveries in the high schoolers that I had as a participant," he says. "The hackathon left me with inspiration and goals I cherish to this day."

This story appears in the spring 2019 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.

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