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Yorkville teacher brings computer science to Ozarks

Volunteer Nick Messinsenior KanelHigh teaches computer science Kanelmiddle school student. | Phosubmitted by AnnSchwein.

Volunteer Nick Messina, a senior at Kaneland High, teaches computer science to a Kaneland middle school student. | Photo submitted by Anna Schwein.

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Updated: June 1, 2013 6:07AM

Computer science teacher Anna Schwein says if the subject she has taught for 11 years at Fox Valley Career Center were rocket science, she wouldn’t be doing it.

“If it’s taught well,” she said, “anyone can learn it.”

That’s the basic principle she used recently to win a $20,000 RISE Award from Google. RISE Awards — which stand for Roots in Science and Engineering — are competitive grants doled out to projects with STEM and computer science initiatives. This year Google funded 30 projects worldwide.

Schwein, a Yorkville resident, wanted to target an underserved population that hadn’t gotten much attention, so she chose to focus on children in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri, a few hours south of where she grew up in St. Louis.

Schwein had heard of many STEM initiatives aimed at young women and minority children, but none for students in rural areas.

“I just think every kid on the face of this Earth should have the same shot at finding their passion and contributing their creativity to make this a better Earth,” she said.

Schwein used the money to create a pilot computer science program for students in Kaneland, then repeated many of the lessons in Eminence, Mo., a city of about 730 where the median household income is $19,000, according to the latest Census data.

In her grant proposal, Schwein targeted school districts where the majority of the population has little to no Internet access, students don’t have computer science classes and teachers lack professional development opportunities to learn new technology.

To prepare for the Missouri trip, Schwein and four of her students from Fox Valley Career Center, which serves seven high schools in Kane County, gave four after-school classes to Kaneland middle-schoolers at the end of January and beginning of February.

Each class focused on a new set of skills, such as building a programmable circuit board, taking apart a computer and putting it back together like a puzzle, writing app programs for Android phones and learning HTML, the mark-up language used to build web pages.

In March, she and her four students spent a week in Eminence, training 15 teachers and giving lessons to 230 students in kindergarten to 12th grade.

Nick Messina, a Kaneland High senior who volunteered to teach Kaneland and Eminence students, said the trip changed his perception about the rural area. Before his trip, he’d never been to Missouri. He’d heard stereotypes about the Ozarks — the poverty, the lack of education — and wasn’t sure what to expect.

But he found his students were friendly, smart and open to learning new skills, even though some of them had little to no experience using a computer.

“When we started a good amount of kids had no idea what computer science was,” Messina said. “By the end of the workshops there were quite a few students that… wanted to pursue computer science even farther. To have an impact like that is just amazing.”

In addition to the lessons, Schwein used the grant to purchase 14 laptops for the school district in Eminence, as well as programmable circuit boards. All of the programs she taught were open-source and free to download, so the students could continue to use them at no cost.

Now Schwein and her students are gearing up for several more trips to conduct summer camps and workshops in Eminence, Steelville, Cuba and Sarcoxie, Mo.

Messina is looking forward to his return trip to Eminence in July.

“It really means a lot to us to go back down,” he said. “We made a lot of new friends. They’re just like us, they just live in a different area and have a way different culture.”

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