‘Grassroots’ tech camp features a lotta brainpower

Epps: ‘You’ve got to bring them in here and let them fail’

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

HAMLET — Jeff Epps and Chad Osborne sit back and watch as the brain power warms up.

Every now and then, the two technology instructors at Richmond County’s Ninth Grade Academy offer a tip here or a bit of guidance there. Sometimes, the brainpower overheats and the two men force a break.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Sierra Ramsay, at the keyboard, and Saleemah Brown, top left, were part of a group working on a video project.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Sierra Ramsay, at the keyboard, and Saleemah Brown, top left, were part of a group working on a video project.

But for the majority of time, nearly two dozen students this week and next are spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen learning about emerging technologies and how they relate to today’s work place.

Epps calls the camp the “Summer of Kainotomia” — Greek for innovation — and uses the school year to vet out truly interested students to the camp, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday this week and next. When the bell rings, most students make a plea to stay longer. Students in grades 3 through 11 are a part of the program.

Osborne calls the camp a “grassroots movement” that could be a model for the state and nation on how to recruit and retain students to technology. Sure, they have their iPads and iPhones. But when sometimes goes wrong, can they fix them? Epps said it’s all about exposing students to new ideas.

“It’s not about mastery,” Epps said.

Epps said it’s not the expectation that students leave the camp computer programmers, but that “by the time they graduate, none of these technologies will be foreign to them.”

Some students use Microsoft Small Basic to learn to write code used to program computers. At the same time, the students are learning about graphing, and how it relates to coding.

“They don’t know they’re learning math,” Epps said. “They’re just having fun.”

Individually, another group of students is working on creating 3-D models — of a dinosaur or of the human circulatory system — and using the .stl files to print the final product on a 3-D printer.

“This is the new way of manufacturing,” Epps said.

Ben Dibble gets it. An Early College graduate, Dibble is expected to head to college this fall to study cyber security. In the weeks before classes begin, he’s spending part of his summer scanning a model turtle using a high-definition, three-dimensional scanner — valued at roughly $16,000 — and sending the digital version to the 3-D printer.

It’s not about the turtle, Dibble said. It’s about the concept. He understands it’s faster to replicate, in the world of manufacturing, a certain part or tool through digital media rather than by hand. So, some 40 or 50 scans later, he nears the finished product on his computer screen.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Shantoria Moore works to create a digital 3-D model of the human circulatory system in order to print one out on the 3-D printer.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Shantoria Moore works to create a digital 3-D model of the human circulatory system in order to print one out on the 3-D printer.

Dibble, along with graduate Alexis Green and Steven Collins, an incoming sophomore at Richmond Senior High School, comprise what Epps calls his “R & D Department” — research and development. In other words, the trio is a step ahead of the game. Dibble and Green both graduated high school with two-year college degrees from Richmond Community College.

Green will soon enter her sophomore year at East Carolina University this fall. She’s studying computer programming. In the technology lab at Ninth Grade Academy, it’s evident she feels right at home.

Green is working with Epps on writing a program to compute high school algebra into code. The goal, Epps said, is for students to better understand algebraic functions.

Green’s younger sister, is next door on her own computer. Working by herself, Shantoria Moore, an incoming RSHS sophomore, is using Cubify Sculpt software to recreate the human circulatory system. It is, Epps said, essentially “digital play dough.”

For Epps and Osborne, it’s a matter of getting the attention of students, one at a time — and qualified girls go first, though it has nothing to do with political correctness.

“We aggressively recruit girls,” Epps said. “They are underrepresented in technology.”

Epps leans over to whisper: “We also realize they are a lot smarter than boys.”

Saleemah Brown, who will enter the Ninth Grade Academy this fall, works within a group of girls that illustrates Epps’ observation. Saleemah and Sierra Ramsay, an incoming seventh-grader at Rockingham Middle School, take the lead on a group video project. They’re using Adobe Premier, which Osborne calls “today’s PowerPoint.”

It’s not quick work. For those who question the attention span of today’s youth, this type of project defies the stereotype.

“It takes a long time to record it,” Saleemah said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Ben Dibble at tech camp at Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Ben Dibble at tech camp at Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy.

But group members aren’t wasting any time.

“We have to be finished by next Wednesday,” Saleemah said. “We have a deadline.”

As will most who join the work force after high school or college.

Some of the male students aspire to be video game programmers. During camp, they begin to learn it’s more than a little work before consumers of the multi-billion get to have their fun.

“It’s a lot harder to create them than it is to play one,” Epps said. But, he noted, students “love a challenge.”

Ian Lewis is one of those students. He also prefers to be in front of a computer screen and work rather than talk about what he’s doing. In front of a screen, he can manipulate his environment to whatever he deems appropriate. On Thursday afternoon, he was working to get a three-dimensional box to tally a point each time it hit the ground. It’s an important concept, he said, if a gamer is expecting to earn points that way.

Ian, going into the 10th grade this fall at Early College, used the Unity program to conduct his tests. It’s not an easy program.

“It’s a process,” he said without taking his eyes from the screen. “You have to learn.”

Though it’s early, Ian said he already recognizes he might not want to test video games for a living. For that, he plans to consider the software side of the industry and be a programmer.

Technology in the classroom

Epps, clearly an advocate for the use of technology in the classroom, is passionate about the subject. His position is counter to the stereotype that technology is helping to bring down, in general, all of society.

Instead, he looks at technology as an opportunity — one often missed in a given classroom. Epps points to a row of three boys on computers. All are playing video games; action games in which each player must absorb and respond quick and in a hurry or die — virtually, of course.

He said all too often, teachers throw information at adolescent boys one … bit … at … a … time. The male students often get bored, Epps said, and the teacher-student relationship sours.

While young girls seem able to go with whatever flow a teacher throws, boys take in a massive amount of information in short blocks — say, for example, 45 minutes — then need a break.

He hopes a camp like his and Osborne’s is a step toward a conversation in change how young adults learn — in any subject.

 

Filed in: Education, Featured News, Latest Headlines, News

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