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Transformative Connections

Transformative Connections

Community-based K-12 computing program strives to strengthen academic and career aspirations of its participants

By Ronald Roach

As a relative newcomer to the Saturday afternoons spent working on computers in a community center in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, Avery Hillmon has his work cut out for him. A participant in the long-running Joint Educational Facilities Inc. (JEF) computer science program, Hillmon, under the   tutelage of program director Dr. Jesse Bemley, has begun learning about voice-recognition software and how it works.

“I’m getting deep into this,” he says late one Saturday afternoon on a sunny but cold February day. Having only joined the program last fall, Hillmon hopes to learn enough about voice-recognition software and its programming to write and present a paper on the topic by the end of the summer.

“It’s fascinating to have the computer type what you speak. I’m starting to learn to like it,” says Hillmon, who is a high-school freshman from Prince William County in northern Virginia.

If all goes well, Hillmon, like dozens of JEF students before him, will present an original research paper either to a conference audience of computer science researchers and professionals or at a conference organized strictly for high-school students. In either venue, the goal is the same — to acquaint minority and socially disadvantaged K-12 students with computer science basics and the innovative subdisciplines within the field. In addition, the JEF program is structured to reinforce the college ambitions of participants or help them consider college as an option.

“I think that JEF aids students a great deal with helping them develop their college aspirations. There are some students who’ve never heard of some of the things that we’re dealing with. And when they can go out to the various universities and present papers, (that environment) becomes more accessible,” says Bemley.

“They begin to say ‘This is something I can do,'” he says about students’ college goals and their pursuit of math and science majors.

Since 1982, Bemley and others have mentored elementary, middle- and high-school students through the Washington-based JEF. A non-profit community-based K-12 organization, JEF familiarizes students with advanced computer science topics, including artificial intelligence (AI) and supercomputing applications. An estimated 400 students from poor to middle-class households have been a part of the program. An average of 20 students annually participate in JEF and students have traveled to conferences as far as Korea, Portugal and Mexico City to present their research.

The organization’s mission is highly relevant with regard to several national initiatives. Primarily, JEF aims to increase the quality and quantity of underrepresented minorities successfully entering math, science and engineering baccalaureate programs at a time when young Americans are reported to have declining interest in those fields. In addition, JEF presents a compelling argument for the concept of supplementary education given that researchers, educators and the public have opened the door to frank public debate about the disparities in educational performance between White/Asian and Black/Latino students.

Supplementary education, urged by researchers such as noted scholars Dr. Edmund Gordon and Dr. James Comer, represents the structured educational activities that occur outside formal schooling and has gained attention from those interested in solutions aimed at closing the academic achievement gap. For his part, Bemley, who works full-time as an IT operations manager with the U.S. Department of the Army, points out with pride that many JEF students have gone on to earn college degrees in science and technology fields. Former participants have also earned masters’ degrees and at least one student has a Ph.D. in computer architecture. Another is in the middle of a doctoral program. Involved with computer science education volunteers in other cities, Bemley strongly believes that community-based learning projects can help significantly boost the participation rate of underrepresented minorities in math and science fields.

In 2004, JEF took its young charges into the world of high-performance computing. That meant several students gaining hands-on training through JEF’s partnership with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which is based in Illinois. Working with instructors from Bethune-Cookman College, Bowie State University, Florida International University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students developed individual research projects in animation, cluster security, video editing and networking.

“What we were trying to do with our kids on the supercomputer was to take some research areas that they were already working in and map those on a supercomputing platform as opposed to a PC platform. In the high-performance computing environment, or supercomputing environment, you can do multiple tasks at the same time. And so you had to restructure your problem to reflect that paradigm,” Bemley says.

Bemley’s 17-year-old son, Bryan, a veteran of JEF since his elementary school days, speaks enthusiastically about his experience last year working in the supercomputing environment with the NCSA and the NCSA-administered Technology Research, Education and Commercialization Center (TRECC). Bryan and several other students received training during a week-long workshop at NCSA’s access and outreach center in Arlington, Va.

With participants based in various sites around the country, the training was conducted over what is known as an Access Grid, an advanced communications system based on grid computing technologies. The Access Grid allows for group-to-group interaction across high-speed data networks and uses large, high-resolution multimedia screens as well as advanced interactive operating systems and interfaces. 

“The speed is right there. It’s a great environment to work in,” says Bryan, who hopes to have more access to supercomputers as well as to clusters of computers networked together to simulate a supercomputer when he majors in a computer science-related discipline in college.

“Having a cluster will be essential to my plans,” adds Bryan, who is a high-school senior.

Alson Been, the chief information officer at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Fla., says working with the JEF students last summer represents part of a large scope of activities Bethune-Cookman’s information technology division has tackled since joining the Internet 2 consortium and developing an access grid node at the campus. Having an access grid node allows Bethune-Cookman officials to participate in research data exchanges and teleconferences with other institutions that have high-performance computing resources, such as supercomputers and high-speed data connections.

“It’s a good idea to work with high-school students on high-performance computing projects to give them a better sense of what computer science has to offer them,” Been says.

Been and Bemley say considerable credit for the high-performance computing opportunities should go to Stephanie McLean, the NCSA outreach specialist, who has linked outreach efforts to minority-serving institutions such as Bethune-Cookman, and community-based efforts, such as JEF, into supercomputing and other high-performance computing activities.

At a conference prior to the NCSA collaboration, Bemley and McLean “talked and determined what we thought we could do because we wanted to do something. And then the rest is history,” Bemley says of last year’s activities.

“Basically what the kids did was they wrote papers detailing what they had done and they presented those papers over the grid,” he says of the NCSA project. Since last August, the JEF program has relied exclusively on its base of 20 laptops and a collection of other machines it has acquired through grants and donations.

“We intend to continue that effort….We’ve been working on setting up an access grid node at our center as well,” Bemley adds. 

While the NCSA collaboration is something of a high mark for JEF, it’s still in keeping with the organization’s commitment to a core vision — which was to deal with the lack of serious computing education in the local schools, according to Bemley. And it includes highlighting areas even the average computer science professional doesn’t cover.

Bemley’s impact as a mentor has gone beyond JEF’s base in Washington; it extends to conferences that have arisen in part to his efforts and to alliances with computing organizations that have offered opportunities to JEF students. Bemley has persuaded computing groups and associations, including the Black Data Processing Associates organization, to sponsor high-school programs or allow JEF students to present papers at their regular conferences. In addition, Bemley is a co-founder of the District of Columbia Computer Science Conference, a showcase event for high-school students co-sponsored by American University.

Dr. Larry R. Medsker, a professor of physics at American University and a co-founder of the conference, says that for 14 years the event has provided a professional-style setting in which students make presentations and publish their work.

“We have felt over the years that we have reached a lot of kids that other programs don’t. And once they get energized and excited about the idea of computing careers it’s more likely they’ll want to go to college and pursue that,” Medsker says.

Like Bemley, Medsker has begun working with institutions to sponsor computer science activities for socially disadvantaged high-school students. Medsker recently helped officials at the University of Indianapolis establish a computer science conference, which was held late last month. Bemley says he’s currently working with volunteers to establish similar conferences in North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio in 2005.

“We have kids who probably would go on to college anyway. We also have a bunch that wouldn’t. So we have some various cases where I think they probably wouldn’t have gone to college at all, but they did because of this,” Medsker says.

For Michael White, the father of JEF participants Eric Lamison-White and Darren Lamison-White, the program helped them practice what White had preached to his sons since their elementary school years. Having developed an avid interest in math and science, both were veterans of science fairs and competitions, and had learned computer-programming skills long before they joined JEF.

“Dr. Bemley’s efforts confirmed what I had been doing with my sons as far as activities outside school. I thought it was a good idea to have them hear it from someone other than myself,” says White, who is a software development consultant based in Bowie, Md.

Impressed by the ambitiousness of JEF, White began volunteering his time on Saturdays to work with students in the program. After Bemley convinced an international computer science conference in Orlando, Fla., to open its doors to JEF, White agreed to help chaperone the trip  in 2003. He returned with the JEF students again in 2004.

Even though one of his sons has since entered college, White says he sees the results of their involvement with JEF. He points to their heightened level of confidence presenting in academic and computing environments.

“I’m gratified to see that they conduct themselves with confidence because they know that they belong in those circles.”

Related Links

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign:

Joint Educational Facilities, Inc.:

Black Data Processing Associates:

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