For two weeks, 18 students from 10 area schools have come together at St. Anne's-Belfield School for a SPARK! Launchpad experience. Designed by co-coordinators of the School's Computer Science Program, Zach Minster and Kim Wilkens, Launchpad is a deep dive into all things computer science, including skill building, design challenges, and field trips to local tech companies and organizations.
"We're making stuff," said Minster of the overall theme. "We're making stuff happen, learning how to make stuff, learning how to teach ourselves to make stuff, learning how other people make stuff. It really all centers on making stuff."
Particular emphasis has been placed on exploring graphics, web, game design and development, pathfinding and AI, and data science.
"Not all schools offer computer science like we do," noted Wilkens. "SPARK! Launchpad allows participants to find others with interests similar to their own. They have a thirst for taking their skills to the next level. We offer a little help, and then having that community around them is important as well."
To ensure that participants understand how what they are learning at Launchpad relates to the real world, field trips to Room Key, Linden Lab, and WillowTree introduce them to local companies and help expand their networks.
"I'm excited about going to WillowTree since it's such a big tech company in Charlottesville," said Anna Rosner, a rising freshman at Albemarle High School. "I'm also looking forward to learning more about different coding languages."
With such a broad range of skills and topics, SPARK! Launchpad appeals to students with a variety of interests and experience levels.
"If you have any interest in computer science or game design or coding, anything like that, this is a great experience," said Ben Lawson, a rising sophomore at Tandem Friends School.
"Whether you have a lot of experience or no experience at all, it's great for everyone," agreed Elijah Witt, a rising sophomore at Western Albemarle High School. "You learn a lot while having fun."
Thanks to support from sponsors WillowTree, the CFA Institute, and the University of Virginia Research Park, the program was available at cost with scholarships. Very few spaces are still available in the SPARK! Exploration program for middle school students, and applications can be completed at www.stab.org/spark.
Photos from SPARK! Launchpad are now available on the School's SmugMug account.