04.12.2017Community

Educating kids for a lifetime of digital insight

By: Jason Small
How Zero Day Camp injects curricula leading kids to a lifetime of understanding the digital world.
Loreto and Matthew

Loreto Dumitrescu and Matthew Curinga are on a mission to increase the availability of computing education.

I hear the familiar buzzer indicating the door is unlocked. Opening the door to the brick Brooklyn apartment building, I head up a flight of stairs. The sound of an apartment door opening echoes in the stairway. From behind the door, Loreto appears with a welcoming smile.

“Hi, thanks for coming,” she says.

A humble hello from  someone who is so motivated to help so many others.

I’m greeted with an offer of some fresh coffee as I settle in for the interview. A moment later, Matthew arrives at the apartment and the three of us sit down to talk about their work with Zero Day Camp.

Loreto Dumitrescu and Matthew Curinga are on a mission to increase the availability of computing education. They started Zero Day Camp to offer classes for kids and professional development for educators. They go deeper by designing software, tools and even curricula in computer science and robotics education.

Their end goal is to help kids gain an understanding of the digital systems that surround us. They believe this can initiate a lifetime of contextual awareness as the digital world continues to change -- ultimately leaving the next generation better informed to truly understand the deeper impacts of these changes.

The Zero Day Camp team and CS4All

Matthew is an Associate Professor and director of the graduate program in Educational Technology at Adelphi University. He completed his doctorate at Columbia where he also taught as an adjunct professor and worked as a research assistant.

Loreto’s background is more unexpected because it includes experience in the medical field, special education and occupational therapy. She focuses on assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning. She has a deep interest in finding ways to bring out the best in each student through technology.

The two met while Matthew was working on his doctorate at Columbia and later teamed up with a third founder, David Frackman. They launched Zero Day Camp as a non-profit organization in 2016. David couldn’t join us for the interview.

We start with the mission statement for Zero Day Camp. I ask Matthew why “CS4All” is specifically mentioned within it.

“There’s been this renewed interest in teaching computer science. In the 80’s, there was a big movement to teach computer programming. That went along with the growth of personal computers and home computers, and then that died out for a little bit. I think there was a feeling in the 90’s that using computers was enough. There was a feeling that computers are so powerful, they can do everything we want them to do. But in the past ten years, especially in the last four years, there’s been this idea that we need to teach computer science again. Partly the idea that everyone should know computer programming but also that studying computer science and computational thinking is a useful general academic skill to have. The CS4All movement is the idea that every kid in New York should study computer science at every level of their education. That way they will have experience with computer science and computer programming. On our website we say that we think critical media literacy should be part of CS4All. Having kids and adults understand the media and politics of computation and computational systems in a way where they can make decisions is more specifically why I want to teach computer programming,” he says.

Matthew is interested in a curriculum that gives students the tools they need to have so they can participate in informed conversations, specifically around contemporary topics in society tied to the digital world.  Better understanding how these systems operate allows these students to see the societal and cultural realities associated with important changes going on around them.

Without this missing link, the next generation would grow up without a contextual understanding of the digital world.

But it all has to start somewhere.

Teaching kids…and teaching teachers

“I like working with kids. We run a weekly after-school computer programming class for kids ages 7-10,” Matthew shares.

“The best is when they say, ‘I can’t do this,’ and then they figure it out. Or when they have an idea and can execute it,” Loreto adds.

Their enthusiasm for connecting with these kids for a greater purpose can be heard in their voices.

Matthew describes how they work in one public school: “We have been offering free classes at a public school in Brownsville with a new robotics team on a weekly basis. I’m doing professional development with the teachers. A lot of the teachers that are teaching programming or robotics just kind of fall into it. They don’t have a background in it. So they are happy to have help with the more challenging parts of it. It would be like being asked to teach Spanish if you don’t speak it. It’s not something you can pick up overnight. Whereas, let’s say there is a new way to teach elementary math -- you might be able to read it and then start teaching it next week. It’s not really the same thing when teaching programming, especially if you want to teach the computational thinking skills. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve been doing.”

Matthew continues, “I would like for us to have more tangible artifacts that come out of Zero Day Camp in the way of curriculum designs. Those can then be adopted by other people and we can put it all out there to be improved on by others in the world.  We’ve been working on some stuff. We’ve been using these microbits.”

Micro Chip

Microbits used to help teach students computer science.

Matthew pulls out these circuit-board looking devices for me to see. The board hooks up to a computer and allows the students to program it to flash LEDs and even play songs. Loreto adds, “In the UK they give these out for free. Every student gets a microbit as part of their curriculum for school and they make things with them.”

This led me to ask, “How much does access to technology factor in to your work?”

Finding ways to put tech-in-hand

Loreto sits up. “It’s very important - I work in public schools and there are the haves and have-nots and I have colleagues in school districts where they’re all 1-to-1 iPads.”

“The school our kids went to didn’t have a computer program,” shares Matthew. “I worked with Adelphi to donate 24 computers and monitors. One of my grad students set up the lab and my wife and I pulled all the cables and shared the work. The next year they were able to hire a full time computer teacher. But without that impetus and the ability to avoid taking anything out of their budget they would not have been able to move in that direction.”

Based on our conversation, the challenge they typically see originates from one of two areas. It is either socio-economic or it’s tied to specific school culture in general.

“School culture is pretty slow to change. There’s been a lot of research about how and when new technology shows promise and then when it actually comes into schools…,” according to Matthew.

He continues, “I remind myself that, especially if you want to work in the poorer schools in New York, if it were easy…people would have done it already. There’s a reason why few high functional computer programming classes exist in Brownsville -- because it’s hard and there’s a lot going on. You need some patience and perseverance if you want to work there and you need to be there for a while. You can’t just go in and expect things to change immediately.”

Given all of the conversation about the next generation of technology and students, it seemed fitting to bring up the increasing topical dominance of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. Before I left, I wanted to know how Matthew and Loreto view the importance of their work in this context.

The impact of artificial intelligence

According to Loreto, AI makes their work all the more important. “You have to learn what is being built and what the social impact will be,” she shares.

Matthew adds, “I think it’s important to go back to our idea of tying computing and societal impact together. If we live in the wealthiest country and the wealthiest city in the world, why can’t we provide better resources to people? And now we have computers doing the work. Why can’t we work less but still keep the same income that we have? If all we’re thinking about is that ‘truck drivers will be unemployed’ without thinking about all of the possibilities for AI, then we are in trouble. We are going to get people losing their jobs with nothing to replace it because it is the status quo.”

With the bigger picture in mind, Zero Day Camp enters a second year of operation as they continue creating curricula, software and tools that can scale for a more informed generation of students.

Opening the minds of youth to a greater understanding of the potential within technology, but emphasizing a contextual awareness, continues to increase in importance.

Organizations big and small are working to generate educational programs addressing this challenge and others.

Loreto, Matthew and David are helping to educate our future generations for contextual awareness.

About the author(s): 

Jason Small leads storytelling for the Verizon communications team. His background includes online and offline roles in digital marketing and communications within corporate, agency and startup environments across more than 20 brands. You can connect with Jason on Twitter @JasonSmallChats.