To Inspire Local Kids, Brown CS Students Teach Coding In Providence And Central Falls Schools


by Lynda Curtis (Media Relations Manager, Brown University)

For Ariana Ruiz-Lopez, it was third grade when she first discovered an interest in computer science.

At Ella Risk Elementary School in Central Falls, R.I., the then 8-year-old participated in Hour of Code, a program created by national nonprofit to expand computer science instruction in public schools by encouraging K-12 students to dedicate one hour to learning the basic steps of writing a computer program.

On that day, local college students — including computer science students from Brown University — taught Ruiz-Lopez and her classmates how to code by playing web games and solving interactive puzzles. Ruiz-Lopez was intrigued by one in particular, named Flappy Bird — a computer game that doubles as a programming tutorial by allowing users to customize how the bird looks, moves or chirps by manipulating drag-and-drop controls to insert blocks of code.

“I was fascinated with coding the flappy bird,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “I remember playing that on my Chromebook, and I liked that I could change the colors and how the bird moved. That was when I started to get an interest in computers.”

Today, Ruiz-Lopez is a senior at Central Falls High School, and her enthusiasm for technology has only grown — the teen has committed to enrolling at the University of Rhode Island next fall to study cybersecurity.

Central Falls High School student Ariana Ruiz-Lopez has dedicated extra time to building her computer science skills outside of school hours in a new after-school coding club led by Brown students. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Ruiz-Lopez will be the first in her family to attend college, but feels confident about the transition to higher education and believes she has a head start on studying the specialized field. For the last 10 months, she has dedicated extra time to building her computer science skills outside of school hours. Each Thursday, she joins roughly two dozen other Central Falls High School students in a new after-school coding club organized and led by Brown students as part of the student group, Brown IgniteCS — one of dozens of student organizations at the University that focus on education and outreach in Rhode Island.

“Because of the coding club, I feel like I have an advantage,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “It allows me to learn about new areas in computer science that a high school student wouldn’t yet see.”

Encouraging a path to computer science

Brown IgniteCS was formed in 2017 by a troop of undergraduate and graduate computer science students driven by a common goal: to expand access to computer science education for Providence-area elementary, middle and high school students from underserved communities.

The Brown student group hopes to inspire kids to explore computer science as a potential college or career pathway, said Kiera Walsh, Brown IgniteCS co-president, by introducing local students to new ideas of how technology works.

“Our mission is to expose more young people to concepts in computer science,” Walsh said. “Introducing computer science at a young age is important because if it’s something kids can find fun or exciting, they might follow on that path to exploring and learning more.”

The coding clubs and classes led by Brown students guide students step-by-step to make their own games, animations and websites using coding languages such as Scratch, HTML/CSS, and Python. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

To connect local students to computer science education and encourage their interest in technology, nearly 20 Brown computer science students volunteer at schools each week in Providence and Central Falls, including Central Falls High School, Classical High School, Nathanael Greene Middle School, Raices Dual Language Academy and Sophia Academy. There, they lead interactive in-school programs and after-school clubs that teach the basics of coding, programming and algorithmic thinking.

For students like Ruiz-Lopez, the after-school coding club provides a unique opportunity to learn alongside a young mentor who is relatable and only a few stages of life ahead, she said.

“High school students, especially in Central Falls, don’t always have an opportunity to work with someone who is learning the same things that we’re going to learn,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “It’s almost like getting the inside scoop — the Brown students know what comes next.”

Elementary school students from Raices Dual Language Academy are also building their computing knowledge and skills through a new after-school coding club. Each week, they apply their newfound knowledge of Scratch, a visual programming language, to create games and animations. The Central Falls school first connected with IgniteCS in 2018 to try out the new club for second through fifth graders. The club expands on the school’s after-school programming, which traditionally includes debate, music and performing arts. Coding has been a popular pick among kids, said Reyna Poche, dean of students at the academy. Poche has asked the Brown students to double the days they run the coding club, at times, to meet the demand among interested students.

“It’s important to us that we can offer different after-school opportunities for our students, and I was excited to bring coding to our school because we don’t have a computer class,” Poche said. “We started with one group, and the students really enjoyed it and looked forward to it, so I decided to add two groups the following semester. It has been phenomenal for us, and the Brown students are very eager to collaborate with our students.”

Nathanael Greene Middle School students code throughout the year as part of the school’s STEAM curriculum, but Brown IgniteCS members guest-teach a full day of computer science classes to supplement the CS lessons with other topics, including algorithms and cryptography. Photo: Nathanael Greene Middle School.

Belonging in the field

Teaching and mentoring local students is a full-circle journey for Brown sophomore Angel Arrazola. Just three years ago, Arrazola was a high school student at Classical High School in Providence, where he first connected with undergraduate students from Brown in the after-school computer science club led by IgniteCS members.

“I had an interest in computer science, and having that computer science club was really great for me because I also wanted to go to Brown,” Arrazola said. “Being able to talk directly to students at Brown was a tremendous experience.”

Brown IgniteCS members Anna Lapre (left) and Angel Arrazola (right) are among two of seven student volunteers that lead the coding club each week at Classical High School in Providence.

Now the Providence Public School District alum is concentrating in computer science and education studies at Brown. As a first-year student, Arrazola joined IgniteCS to help lead the coding club at Classical and teach computer science classes at Nathanael Greene Middle School, which he also attended. Arrazola hopes he can represent one potential path forward by returning to his former schools.

“Part of what I’m doing as a mentor is to show kids, ‘Hey, I’m someone from this community, and I’m a Brown student, and you can study CS here too if that’s something that you are interested in,’” Arrazola said.  

Arrazola is among many eager computer science students, faculty and researchers committed to bringing creative learning experiences to local public schools. The coding classes and clubs cap a lengthy history of community outreach initiatives led by the University’s computer science department. Brown faculty and students have taught the Hour of Code program in local schools since 2013, reaching more than 1,000 K-12 Providence and Central Falls students. Other outreach efforts in years prior have included a robot block party, a coding club for middle school girls and school field trips to Brown’s robotics lab.

Sophia Academy, a tuition-free independent middle school serving girls from low-income families in Providence, is among the newest schools to partner with IgniteCS. Guided by Brown undergraduates, seventh and eighth-grade students meet every Tuesday after school to create and design websites. Each week, the club’s lessons build on previous sessions to allow the middle schoolers to expand their technical skills and customize their sites with new pages, text, links and images.

Without a formal computer science curriculum, middle school director and math teacher Melissa Moniz sees partnerships with local institutions and community organizations as critical connections for introducing and exposing girls to cutting-edge science and technology. Other partners have included Black Girls CODE and Winners Circle XR Academy, an education nonprofit that creates immersive learning experiences using virtual reality. Moniz, a Providence native and Brown graduate, wants her students to understand that the University is accessible to them.

“It’s important that our students see a world outside of the classroom and connect to different organizations and community resources that are here in their community,” Moniz said. “Brown is right down the street from us, and often our students drive by. We want them to know that this is a school in your community that you can access and that the coding club is one way you can access it.”

From the classroom to tech companies

In its collaboration with the Brown student group, Nathanael Greene Middle School asked IgniteCS members to lead an in-school program, where teams of University students would guest-teach a full day of computer science classes. Leading two days of classes during the fall and spring, IgniteCS members instructed more than 200 middle school students each day on the uses of computer science in everyday life. And, while the middle school has expanded its STEAM curriculum in recent years to include coding, robotics and 3D printing, the guest teachers from Brown created lesson plans that supplemented the school’s curriculum and focused on theoretical computer science topics, including algorithms and cryptography, among other topics.

For Darshell Silva, librarian and maker education teacher at Nathanael Greene, the Brown students are important real-life figures representing potential careers and pathways.

“We like our students to see the real-world application of things that we’re teaching in the classroom as well as to see the people involved in it,” Silva said. “There’s no better way to show them that than to show them what’s going on at Brown.”

Central Falls High School science teacher Alison Murray (center) relies on Brown computer science students to bring new technical knowledge and programming skills to her classroom as part of the after-school coding club held each Thursday at the high school. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Similarly, Central Falls High School science teacher Alison Murray has grown the CS and engineering curriculum in recent years but sees the Brown students as valuable partners who bring new technical knowledge and programming skills to her classroom. Many of her students, like Lopez, have gone on to pursue computer science in college, which she says can prepare them for an exciting and successful future.

“Computer science is the future,” Murray said. “Any job that they want to go into in the future will need these skills. I’m trying to build a pipeline because… computer science is a great way for the kids and their families to better their situation financially.”

Computer science continues to be one of the fastest-growing fields, with significant earning potential. While Ruiz-Lopez is a few years away from jumping into the job market, she’s motivated and energized by the many career possibilities ahead.

“I know that I could take my degree and go on and work for like Microsoft or Amazon or other big corporations, and that’s exciting,” she said.