This year’s Summer SPARK! Program faced a lot of challenges due to COVID-19, but a change to a free online learning experience made the program more accessible than ever.
"This summer promised to be unlike any other, and we could have punted,” explained Computer Science Program (K-8) Coordinator Kim Wilkens. “But instead, we took it in a new direction. It turned out to be incredibly gratifying to be part of an online experience where student volunteers and participants felt like they were part of something meaningful and important in their lives right now."
With a core mission of making computer science accessible to middle and high school students in Charlottesville and around the world through online platforms, the program explored weekly themes with interactive challenges, video tutorials, live streams, and guest speaker sessions from experts in the field—all in a completely virtual environment. Computer Science Program Coordinator and Upper School Teacher Zach Minster led a team of students in pivoting to an engaging online learning environment that served up daily challenges, connected campers into virtual cabins, and offered a gallery to share their work.
"It's hard to overstate just how much work from our own students went into making Summer SPARK! a success for hundreds of peers from around the world,” Minster said. “They collectively put hundreds of hours into creating production-quality lesson content and developing a custom software platform that realized 100% of our vision for organizing an online summer program around true engagement rather than just video calls.”
During each week of the program, featuring themes of web design, the art of code, and game design, students used their newfound knowledge to produce a wealth of original creations. By the end of camp, more than 400 original submissions had been made to the program’s online gallery. This level of knowledge application had a big impact on campers.
"On the final day of camp, I asked the group of students if they had enjoyed their experience at camp,” Upper School Student Volunteer Zach Ashby said. “One student very enthusiastically responded that he rushed to ask his mom to sign him up for the remaining two weeks after an incredible first week experience. Hearing this was very powerful for me, and I realized we had created a successful program.”
Minster added, “The impact on campers was tremendous, the spirit of summer camp was fully alive, and our volunteers' success in reaching such a tremendously diverse group of peers is a key example of our program's emphasis on learning to construct real-world applications for the greater good. I could not be more proud of the work of this intensely talented group of students."