Summer coding camps at MU

Alex Trabold, Contributing writer

With the digital age in full swing, students must learn to become proficient keeping up with modern technology. That is precisely what Mercyhurst University, the Erie Innovation District and the Erie School District joined together to do over the summer.

Mercyhurst’s Computing and Information Science department (CIS) worked with Erie’s public schools to help students learn coding through student-focused camps. Afzal Upal, Ph.D., Mercyhurst’s CIS Department Chair, headed this initiative.

“Free coding camps at Mercyhurst this summer were part of a much larger joint effort by Erie Innovation District, where I work as a Chief Scientist, along with Mercyhurst University and Erie Public Schools,” Upal said. “This effort is aimed at increasing participation by historically under-represented groups in computer science.”

Upal hopes that they can remove the stigma against education for computer science as being “geeky” and “nerdy” by allowing students to code with e-sports games during the camps.

“Our innovative effort, funded by a $500,000 PA Smart Advancing Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, aims to make computer science exciting by teaching CS through computer games and e-sports,” Upal said. “We see e-sports as a vehicle for attracting students who traditionally do not study CS, much the same way colleges see NCAA sports as a means to attract students who traditionally would not study at those higher education institutions.”

Upal developed the proposal with the help and support of Erie Innovation Director CEO, Karl Sanchak, and Curriculum Director at Erie Public Schools, Nora Dolak. The concept for this Erie School District (ESD) program originated as a “glimmer in the eye” in Sanchak’s words at a meeting over a year ago at the Erie Innovation District.

“They stressed the need to encourage local education in IT and STEAM,” Sanchak said. “Our companies wanted to hire from the community, and we needed to help make this happen in an inclusive way.”

Sanchak asked Upal to take a lead role in capturing some of the thoughts from that session for them to follow up on in 2019. Shortly after the meeting, the governor’s office opened up opportunities for state funding that could be applied directly to educational programs in computer fields. Upal went to work with ESD’s leaders to create a grant between ESD and Mercyhurst.

Meanwhile, Sanchak created a concept for linking improved access to the Internet through public-access WiFi with an educational program designed to ultimately bridge the digital divide in the city. This idea was shared with the full support of the ESD, Mayor Joe Schember, Mercyhurst and others to the National League of Cities, as part of their commitment to creating a vital innovation ecosystem in Erie.

Sanchak has shown pride in meeting those commitments and that vision.

“I’m just thrilled to be part of a team making a genuine impact and this effort couldn’t have been done without everyone’s creative support,” Sanchak said.

Upal believes that this initiative has improved the educational opportunities for the students of Erie for the better himself, showing a sense of accomplishment.

“While our work is far from done, we’ve already shown that Erie can be at the forefront of educational innovation,”: Upal said. “While everyone around the country laments the low level of participation by African Americans, Hispanics, and women in computer science, we have pioneered the development of a novel effort designed to address this problem.”