Clemson part of a high-tech effort to break the cycle of poverty

By Paul Alongi
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98

IN THE SUMMER OF 2018 on the edge of the North Charleston neighborhood of Chicora-Cherokee, Clemson School of Computing doctoral student Olivia Nche-Eyabi asked a classroom full of elementary-age children from the neighborhood what she would need to draw a square.

A few students responded with baffled looks until she made a drawing motion with her hand.

“A pen!” one of the students said.

On a big, wall-mounted monitor, the students watched as Nche-Eyabi dragged the “pen down” command into their computer program.

The session, part of a broader effort to break the cycle of poverty in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, was part of a five-week summer camp called Coding for Kids, designed to introduce coding and computing to children in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of child poverty in South Carolina.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD of about 5,000 residents covers about 2 square miles. Despite challenges that make it difficult for people to emerge from poverty, Chicora-Cherokee has some assets that other high-poverty communities don’t. One is the setting of Nche-Eyabi’s class: the Clemson University Zucker Family Graduate Education Center, a $21.5 million educational facility on the banks of the Cooper River. Another is Metanoia, a nonprofit organization that has invested in the community’s people, institutions and homes for the past 16 years. Third, Chicora-Cherokee has two thriving companies in its own backyard — Boeing and Blackbaud — that believe in making a positive difference.

Working together, they’re offering programs designed to help the neighborhood’s children build confidence and skills in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — which employers say are in high demand and crucial to the future workforce.

Students who once could only see the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center from outside — or didn’t even know it existed — are now taking courses inside the building, says Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, who is based at the center as executive director of community and corporate development.

“We want to influence these children and help them realize they can do anything, even something that may seem intimidating at first, like science, because all of it is a lot of fun,” she says.

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES

The coding camps are a form of medicine for neighborhoods with schools that have alarmingly high poverty rates. In state report cards, four elementary schools in the area report that more than 90 percent of their students live in poverty.

The Zucker Family Graduate Education Center is a viaduct away from the residential section of the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood. The distinctive steel and glass building opened in a former naval yard two years ago to serve the Charleston area’s booming demand for master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering and computer science. It has expansive views of the Lowcountry marshes, open spaces for collaboration, and naturally lit classrooms with video conferencing capabilities.

Anita Zucker, whose family funded the building, says the camps are a phenomenal use for the center at a time of year major classes are not taking place.

“I think it’s really awesome that Clemson professors as well as teachers are working together to provide these kids access to an innovative learning environment that they otherwise would never have,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to teach them STEM-related skills that are really critical to making them become successful in their lives. I think these could be future Clemson students.”

Coding for Kids is part of Freedom Schools, a summer program offered Monday through Thursday by Metanoia to prevent learning loss, also known as “summer slide.” Supported by the Children’s Defense Fund in partnership with schools, faith and community-based organizations, municipalities, colleges and universities, and social agencies, the Freedom Schools program provides literacy and cultural enrichment programming for children in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive, or nonexistent.

A PLACE OF POTENTIAL

The Rev. Bill Stanfield began Metanoia with his wife, Evelyn Oliveira, in 2002 shortly after he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. They were hired by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina after a demographic study found that the state’s highest concentration of child poverty was in the Chicora-Cherokee area.

Stanfield took a year to listen to the community, then assembled a board of directors from the neighborhood and began Metanoia with an after-school program. Several programs have since been added, including Freedom School and a housing initiative that has helped to rehabilitate 150 homes, he says.

Stanfield’s philosophy is to focus on the community’s assets, including its people and churches, and build on them. “By working with the community as a place of potential and capacity, rather than just problems, you see things rise to the top,” he says. “You can invest in them, and they begin to generate a return for the community.”

Stanfield says a good example of that philosophy in action is LaShay Norton, a reading coach at Mary Ford Elementary. She grew up in Chicora-Cherokee and stays in touch through the church she attends. Her two children are involved with Metanoia, including daughter Makenzie, a Coding for Kids student.

Norton began as a teaching assistant in Coding for Kids in its inaugural year in 2017 and returned in 2018 as an assistant lecturer.

“It’s allowing students to have an awareness of opportunities other than what they see day to day,” she says. “If they have exposure to it, they can dream even bigger. I like the idea of exposing kids to that kind of activity.”

Makenzie’s take on the camp? “Awesome,” she says.

Makenzie says she learned, “You always have to have a variable. You have to be exact with it.”

“By working with the community as a place of potential and capacity, rather than just problems, you see things rise to the top.”

‘GOOD MORNING!’

Metanoia invited Clemson World to observe the second day of Freedom School in summer 2018. The day began in the Chicora Elementary cafeteria with breakfast and “harambe,” a high-energy assembly named for the Swahili word that roughly translates to “pull together.”

About 100 students gathered around a stage at one end of the cafeteria as guest reader Asiah Thomas took a seat on a step with the book City Green in her hands.

“Good morning!” she says. The students responded with not just a simple greeting but by spelling in a rhythmic chant: “G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G. Good morning! Good morning!”

When Thomas finished reading the book, the students formed a giant circle. They joined their teachers for about 15 minutes of inspirational chants, music and dancing before heading to the classrooms. The rest of the morning was devoted to reading and other literacy exercises.

All the Freedom School students are at Chicora Elementary in the mornings. After lunch, half of the eligible students go to the Zucker center for Coding for Kids on Mondays and Wednesdays, and half go on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Students who stay at Chicora Elementary participate in other activities, such as karate and cooking classes.

Coding for Kids is open to rising third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. It enrolls 40 students each year. Boeing and Blackbaud have been instrumental in supporting the program. Boeing assembles 787 Dreamliners and has IT, engineering, and advanced research and development facilities about 10 minutes from the neighborhood. Blackbaud, the world’s leading cloud software company powering social good, is headquartered in Charleston.

COMMITTING TO A SHARED COMMUNITY

Jessica Jackson, director of global engagement in Boeing’s southeast region, says the company invested in Coding for Kids because it was a way to give back to the community while inspiring and engaging underrepresented youth in STEM, one of the company’s priorities in charitable giving.

The company liked that Coding for Kids brought together several collaborators, is sustainable, will result in evidence-based outcomes and has the potential to be offered on a larger scale.

“This could expand beyond Chicora and could be replicated in other neighborhoods in the North Charleston community and beyond,” she says. “Being able to make an impact on our future workforce is really important. We’re excited to be a part of this community and this program, which is making a positive impact on these kids’ lives.”

Mary Beth Westmoreland, chief technology officer of Blackbaud, says the program reaches children at a critical age for them to think about careers in engineering and science. It also allows students to hone their skills, learn something new and build their confidence in the engineering discipline while keeping them active over the summer so they don’t lose a step academically.

“We need more of what Clemson is doing,” Westmoreland says. “When leaders in academia and business commit to their shared community, the result is something magical. Clemson is bringing together top thinkers and innovators across Charleston to inspire children, demonstrate just how brilliant and creative they are and get them excited about careers in engineering.”

THINKING LIKE A COMPUTER

Seventeen students, including Makenzie, took a five-minute bus ride from Chicora Elementary to the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center on the second day of Freedom School. Eight Charleston-area educators who serve as camp coordinators were waiting in a classroom to help guide them.

The students took an assessment with pencils and paper to measure their abilities, and then Nche-Eyabi began to introduce them to “Snap!” The program allows students to drag and drop color-coded computer commands, helping teach them about coding and computer science. Even if students have trouble reading words, they can still do the coding.

Through the program, students learn to think like a computer. In one exercise, they program the computer to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It might be a no-brainer for a human to grab a knife before spreading the ingredients, but students learn that computers need to be told every small step: pick up the knife, open the jar of peanut butter, put the knife in the jar and so on until the tasty sandwich is completed.

Beyond the “Snap!” experience, the students interact with professionals from the community, such as engineers and a virtual-reality expert, who help them connect what they learn in the classroom to how it can be used in the real world.

This year, students also learned with “Code Tracesure,” a new computer game created by Clemson scholars especially for the class. Students walk around a maze and find bonus questions. To exit a level, they have to find and answer all the bonus questions. Each bonus question has a small command they have to interpret. If they get it right, they get extra points, explains Victor Zordan, chair of visual computing in the School of Computing at Clemson; he’s the principal investigator for Coding for Kids and a program organizer.

“They get a number of stars at the end of each level,” Zordan says. “The idea for us is that they will continue to play each level until they’ve got the full set of stars, which means they are practicing again and again and again with these questions. It’s set up to incentivize them reading little snippets of code.”

MATH-INTENSIVE SUMMER CAMP LAUNCHED

Also new this year is Clemson University Women in Numbers, a math-intensive summer camp for middle school girls sponsored by Clemson’s PEER and WISE (Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention and Women in Science and Engineering). A grant from the Engineering

Information Foundation and funding from Cummins Turbo Technologies helped pay for the camp.

The idea behind the camp is to increase girls’ confidence in math and other STEM topics to help close the gender gap in STEM professions. Organizers believe that if the girls are comfortable with math, they will be more likely to do well in Calculus I, a crucial class that can make or break a student’s drive to become an engineer.

Students in the camp learned mathematical concepts and participated in hands-on activities that applied theory to real-world situations. The curriculum was created by Rhoda Latimer, a former middle school math teacher and a doctoral student at Clemson in curriculum and instruction and mathematics education. Maya Rucks, a graduate assistant in PEER and WISE, coordinated the program.

Clemson undergraduate and graduate students in engineering and science education taught the classes and served as role models for the girls. The camp also included field trips to Boeing and Cummins and the chance to learn from women working in STEM careers.

“These young ladies have somebody close up — the actual instructors themselves — coming from the industry,” says Serita Acker, the director of PEER and WISE. “All of those folks are role models. The girls may look up and say, ‘I wouldn’t mind being an engineer.’ I think that’s key.”

Girls in the camp also gained a global perspective by trading videos with students who are in a similar program in the West African nation of Ghana.

Lynn Clegg, the K-12 STEM coordinator in the Charleston County School District, collaborated on the camp as part of the district’s Liberty Hill K-12 STEM initiative. The district identified 20 scholars to attend the camp, coordinated the Ghana exchange and provided busing, breakfasts and lunches, she says.

The inaugural year went well, and organizers are looking for ways to expand it next year.

“The girls loved it,” Clegg says. “They had a great time and learned a lot. They built a lot of confidence in themselves, which was one of the main goals of the program.”

“There’s an ongoing relationship now,” Stanfield says. “Ultimately, what heals any community is relationships.”

ROLE MODELS IN STEM

It will be several years before anyone knows whether the camps are inspiring the students to go to college and become engineers or computer scientists. In the meantime, organizers are seeing highly promising anecdotal evidence that the students are fully engaged.

Zordan says the students are gaining confidence in technology. “I think that’s a very qualitative measure, but I do think we saw that in spades,” he says. “And I anticipate we’ll see that again. The main thing is that this exposure is really influencing them.”

Even if students don’t become programmers, they will be better prepared for a computer-assisted world, where even dishwashers run on computer programs, says Zordan, who also directs Clemson’s digital production arts program.

Meanwhile, organizers are looking for ways to expand offerings in the community. Several organizers suggested expanding Coding for Kids into the school year so that students get a refresher between summers. Zucker says she would like to see the programs extend through high school.

“These are the kids we need to capture,” she says. “We can’t lose them when we do the coding camp. We need to keep them in a pipeline every summer until we can get them ready for their next steps.”

Stanfield is working on a $12 million renovation of the old Chicora Elementary, turning it into an early childhood education center with space for artists. Clemson architecture students have been doing some of the early design work.

It’s another connection between Metanoia and Clemson.

“There’s an ongoing relationship now,” Stanfield says. “Ultimately, what heals any community is relationships.”

Paul Alongi is a technical and features writer for the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

2 replies
  1. John Covington says:

    Great work! As a current student I am impressed and very happy that my school is taking big steps in helping historically underrepresented people and giving them the skills and tools at an early age to compete and be successful in the modern world. God Bless and Go Tigers!

    Reply

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2 replies
  1. John Covington says:

    Great work! As a current student I am impressed and very happy that my school is taking big steps in helping historically underrepresented people and giving them the skills and tools at an early age to compete and be successful in the modern world. God Bless and Go Tigers!

    Reply

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