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June 20, 2011

APL Volunteer Teachers Capture Young Imaginations

APL Volunteer
"I'm paying back the people who did this for me when I was a kid," says Eric Farmer.

Every Tuesday, programmer Eric Farmer makes the short drive from APL to Lime Kiln Middle School to teach computer programming to six students in the Gifted and Talented program on his own time.

"I'm paying back the people who did this for me when I was a kid," he says. "I think about these very specific people I remember from my childhood who helped me learn about computers in particular and mathematics in general."

Farmer, who works in APL's Air and Missile Defense Department, has been teaching the class for 6 years. Connie Finney, APL's education and community outreach coordinator, facilitated the partnership at Lime Kiln and subsequently set up programs at two other Howard County middle schools, Oakland Mills and Glenwood.

Tim Geipe, who works in the same department as Farmer, teaches the class at Oakland Mills. "I've always had an interest in teaching," he says. "Not a lot of people have a huge motivation to do math. I found I was good at mathematics and enjoyed helping people learn."

The newest addition to the group is Kristin Sotzen, of APL's Space Department, who has been tutoring at Glenwood since January. "I'd love to see some changes in our public school systems to encourage kids to innovate and think outside the box and maybe not generalize so much," she says. "At some point I figured I should get off my soapbox and work on doing something about it."

Geipe says he focuses on the "nuts and bolts" of programming so that kids learn the language as well as techniques for developing applications. "You hear about students in this country falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to science and technology," he says. "It's hard stuff. But once [the kids] know the tricks and the secrets, they see this isn't as hard as they thought."

Geipe shared his lesson plans with Sotzen, who has implemented them at Glenwood. Her students are in the process of selecting a project now. "I've suggested robotics, and they seem really excited about it," she says.

Farmer has supervised various student projects, from adventure games to a "Guitar Hero" clone. His goal is to encourage students to use programming "to solve interesting problems in math, physics, or engineering, and use the computer as a tool."

All three believe their job is easier than a classroom teacher's because they are working with kids who are especially motivated. The challenge, they say, is keeping students interested.

"How do I capture their imaginations, to get them to want to learn? Because if they want to learn it, there's no stopping them," Geipe says.

The students can't always jump right into the "fun stuff," either. "If you tell kids they have to do matrices and multi-threading or event dispatch and rendering threads, a lot of them will glaze over," Farmer says. But children will learn those skills when a project engages them.

"It doesn't matter to me if the end product is a video game, because during the course of that development, almost without knowing it, that kid has learned about coordinate transformation and perspective projections and how to get those [guitar] frets to come down the screen," Farmer adds.

The reward, all three say, comes when the kids get excited about learning. "You start with kids who are wondering how this works, and a few weeks later, they're doing it. They're making it work," says Geipe. "That's a really cool feeling."