IEEE Technical Community on Software Engineering (TCSE) Supports Coding in Belize

An interview with the minds responsible for fostering love for software engineering in the next generation of computing professionals.
IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 03/12/2022
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The Michigan State University College of Engineering has partnered with Pathlight International to create the MSU x Pathlight Coding Clubs initiative. This outreach program allows MSU undergraduate mentors to teach computer skills remotely to economically disadvantaged youths living in Belize. IEEE’s Technical Community on Software Engineering (TCSE) and their large professional network have generously contributed 20% of the MSU x Pathlight Coding Club funding.


What the Program Offers

The goal of a mentor is to provide a fun and interactive learning experience that empowers girls and boys who would otherwise not have access to many opportunities. Along with access to technological training, girls and boys in Belize will meet role models, including some who are Belizean themselves, who will show them how technical training can transform their lives.

After developing their coding skills, students will participate in an MSU x PathLight Coding Showcase project. Director of Teacher Training for PathLight International Consuelo Godfrey said she is most proud that Belizean students can be exposed to an opportunity like this. She hopes that students will be inspired to pursue careers in STEM.


An Overwhelming Response

The first time MSU x PathLight Coding offered clubs in Belize, they received over 200 applications for the 30 seats they were able to offer. After reaching out to the IEEE Computer Society and other potential donors, they were able to expand the program by 30 more seats. 70 applicants were chosen, and after three and a half weeks of remote sessions, almost 60 were still active in the program.


Overcoming Challenges

Consuelo highlighted one of the principal challenges they faced, saying that many of their participants lack the resources needed to benefit fully from the program. Additionally, students in Belize, especially girls, are not encouraged to pursue a STEM career. But funding and support have helped to change adversity into success. Laura Dillon, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science & Engineering at Michigan State University, welcomes computing professionals and donors alike. The program’s success is leading to rapid expansion, and continual support is needed.


Benefits to Mentors and Students Alike

Laura Dillon, Professor Emeritus, Computer Science and Engineering, Michigan State University
Consuelo Godfrey, Director of Teacher Training, PathLight International

The program has opened up other opportunities for students, such as enrolling in the International Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program or becoming part of the Legacy Network for students. On the other side, mentors are

able to develop and hone soft skills, such as leadership and communication, that will help them in their own careers. As a result, many have continued on to volunteer in other projects as well.

The seven-week club for 2022 is already underway, promising success thanks to the hard work of those involved and the generous support of donors like TCSE.

We invite you to explore TCSE membership information today.

Read the entire interview with Consuelo Godfrey, Director of Teacher Training, PathLight International, and Laura Dillon, Professor Emeritus, Computer Science and Engineering, Michigan State University regarding the project in Belize below.


What are MSU x PathLight Coding Clubs?

The MSU x PathLight Coding Clubs offer computing instruction to economically disadvantaged girls and boys living in Belize. This partnership between the College of Engineering at Michigan State University and PathLight International is supporting MSU undergraduate mentors to lead three remote clubs this spring and then visit Belize for in-person instruction and cultural exchange.

Mentors guide Belizean secondary school participants through a fun, engaging, and empowering learning experience. Together, mentors and participants explore how computing enables advances in virtually all disciplines. They meet diverse role models, including some Belizean professionals working with technologies that are transforming lives in Belize and beyond. Participants hone their computational skills using Python Turtle Graphics. In the last half of the remote session, they complete a project for the MSU x PathLight Coding Showcase. They also develop lasting friendships.

The remote lessons will culminate in a weeklong visit by mentors to Belize. The mentors will meet with participants at several key locations to prepare them to present their projects. The mentors will also work to build local support for the coding clubs and visit several Belizean cultural sites.

How did you originally get involved with the program?

Consuelo PathLight has embarked on various STEM education initiatives since 2020. These initiatives prompted a PathLight Board Member, Elvira Mendez, who knew of Teresa VanderSloot and of Teresa’s role in outreach at MSU (see below), to introduce Teresa to PathLight. From those great connections, we now have the amazing MSU/PathLight Belize Coding Partnership.

Laura I have worked to support women and students from populations that are underrepresented in computing since the 1990s. While CSE Department Chair at MSU in the early 2000s, I was fortunate to hire Teresa VanderSloot as the department’s academic advisor—she is passionate about the inclusion of women and minority populations in STEM. Together, we supported a small number of women students to create an ACM Women in Computing Chapter (MSU WIC). One of MSU WIC’s favorite activities was putting on one-day workshops for Girl Scout troops and inner-city school groups in mid-/east-Michigan. The one-day workshops evolved into weekly afterschool clubs when MSU WIC secured funding from Google and then the National Center for Women in Information Technology.

Meanwhile, Teresa was promoted to Director of Recruitment, Civic Engagement, and K-12 Outreach in the College of Engineering. In her new role, she was eager to support a coding outreach program, called Spartan Coding Clubs (SPARCC)—not just to interest high school students in engineering at MSU—but because of the impact that participation as mentors in the clubs has on first- and second-year students. They become empathetic leaders and engaged students; they buy into the narrative that they teach about the vast range of opportunities and the impact of careers in STEM, and they bond with one another and with faculty and staff advisors helping with the coding clubs. The opportunity to participate as mentors in SPARCC has also become an effective tool for recruiting new students.

Prior to COVID, we’d had a very successful international experience teaching computational skills in Rwanda. We’d partnered with the US Peace Corps in Rwanda to offer TechKobwa, a two-week residential summer camp teaching basic coding and IT to secondary-school girls and their teachers for three summers running. But much of the success of TechKobwa stemmed from working directly with participants in person and in their home country, and this model became problematic around the last election in Rwanda due to political unrest and then later due to the global pandemic. However, TechKobwa was singularly successful in allowing the MSU mentors who participated—all of whom were of African descent—to experience African culture and inspire secondary-school girls in Africa to prioritize their educations to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

When Elvira introduced Teresa to PathLight, Teresa was therefore eager to try partnering with them. Two years of remote coding clubs had taught MSU mentors that they could be effective at a distance. Although remote clubs were not ideal for building community and relationships, many of the hurdles were overcome with experience, careful planning, and better training of new mentors.

What aspects of the club are you most proud of?

Consuelo That we can expose our Belizean students to opportunities like this. Not many of our high school students get the chance to engage in STEM learning opportunities; we want to ensure that our students excel in STEM like other high school students in the region. These learning opportunities grant our students the chance to own their own learning and have fun. We also hope it will inspire them to pursue careers in STEM.

Laura The rapport that mentors build with participants in just a few remote meetings. It is heartwarming to see budding young mentees blossom into coders, motivated at first by their desire to please the mentors they have come to like and respect and later by their enjoyment of coding. Both mentors and coders come away with new confidence and leadership skills. Timid to show themselves or unmute in the first meeting or two, coders are chiming into the chat or readily unmuting themselves more with each meeting. Those with web cams and sufficient bandwidth also become eager to enable their video.

How many participants has the club supported to date?

This first time offering the clubs, we had over 200 applicants for only 30 seats after just a week of posting a single flyer. That was when we reached out to IEEE Computer Society and ACM SIGSOFT for funding to be able to expand by another 30 seats. Thankfully, they were happy to help!

We selected 70 of the pool of applicants to join. At the half-way point of the seven-week remote session, about 58 from the initial 70 were still active in the club! Some commute long distances to be able to log into the twice-weekly 90-minute meetings; many also regularly attend an optional weekly “bonus hour.”

What are some of the challenges these students face and how does the club address them?

Consuelo Our students are not well resourced in Belize. Many of them use laptops at their schools and must travel from remote hometowns just to access the internet to be able to sign in to the classes. In the future, we hope to provide laptops that participants can take home so they can use the internet from their village centers and not have to travel to a school with a computer lab to use a laptop.

Laura Consuelo has spoken to some challenges of participants. I will add that even when participants and mentors have necessary laptops and robust internet connections, remote instruction can be isolating and difficult to follow. MSU mentors consciously work to reduce the feeling that coders are on their own by planning fun and engaging ice breakers; providing regular, individualized, and encouraging feedback on coders’ progress; inviting coders one-by-one to “conference” with pairs of mentors who answers coders’ questions and check on their progress in Zoom breakout rooms, and taking and responding to “temperature checks” during online meetings.

More senior MSU “lead” mentors work just as hard to build community and reduce the sense of isolation experienced by first-time mentors, many of whom have never attended any in-person classes at MSU and do not reside on campus due to COVID. Lead mentors conduct weekly remote all-mentor meetings designed to engage mentors in getting to know one another, training, and professional development. They also arrange (socially distant) social events for mentors on campus, such as a skating party at MSU’s ice arena, an evening at an MSU sporting event, or an Olympics watch-party in a spacious technology classroom.

How are the participants putting what they learn into action?

Consuelo Many of these students plan to sign up for the International Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, once they can access resources. PathLight International and MSU also plan to develop a Legacy Network of these students, who will be able to impart the knowledge they gain in this program to other Belizean students in future programs.

Laura First- and second-year MSU mentors use the leadership and communication skills that they gain in subsequent years as student representatives on department and college committees, officers in student organizations, and lead mentors in later coding clubs. They land and succeed in good summer internships. Many of them volunteer for other outreach activities at MSU and in their communities. I am not aware of any that left MSU without a degree.

How can Computer Society members get involved/supported - volunteering, forming additional clubs, contributions, resource donations, etc.?

Consuelo PathLight does its best to work with the participants to access devices and the internet. However, many of the participants who do not attend our afterschool program do not have those resources. We seek assistance to provide much-needed laptops to students currently in all of our STEM programs. We set a goal to raise funds for 100 laptops in 2022—especially for our girls. Fewer than 2% of high school girls in Belize plan to seek STEM careers. We want to change that narrative so that by 2030 at least 30% of Belizean girls in high schools intend to pursue STEM careers. We call this our 30X2030 Plan.

We would also like to offer a sustainable summer program for students interested in STEM careers in which they learn coding, Project-Based Learning, and the like. We plan to run a fully-funded summer program for at least 150 high school students where they can fully enjoy learning and gain life-long STEM skills.

Donations to PathLight International can be made HERE.

Laura We welcome diverse computing professionals to become involved with SPARCC, especially any that are using computing in addressing compelling world problems or who followed unconventional career paths. Professional volunteers serve as advisers to our team of undergraduate mentors. They observe the remote lessons, help field questions from coders, and provide feedback to mentors. Some also provide a live “Spotlight,” or a short presentation at a coding club meeting about what they do, what inspires them about their work, and how they got where they are, followed by a brief Q&A. A professional volunteer may also speak at a mentor meeting on professional development topics (e.g., how to land an internship or tips for interviewing).

As SPARCC has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to fund. This spring, in addition to the 3 clubs for Belizean students, we are running 4 clubs for students in Michigan in grades 9-12. The capacity of our remote coding clubs is limited by the number of mentors we can hire. Monetary donations enable us to expand our offerings while still maintaining the low mentor-to-coder ratio needed to keep coders engaged.

Anyone interested in making a (tax-deductible) donation will find instructions for supporting the Belize clubs HERE and for supporting SPARCC HERE.

What is the funding the program receives used for?

Consuelo The MSU mentors are so amazing with our students! Our students truly learn and are engaged in the classes. Even during bonus hour, which is not a class per say, many students log in for assistance. PathLight is lucky to have such great partners as MSU. Our students are learning! Amazing life experiences are being forged in these sessions. I am happy and grateful to be a part of it.

Laura In my experience, the success of an international outreach program depends critically on having a strong, committed local partner. PathLight has been that partner for the MSU x PathLight coding clubs! We are honored to work with such a committed team of STEM educators and with the bright and eager group of participants that they recruited.

A fun anecdote from an early club meeting illustrates that the learning goes both ways. Upon hearing a rooster crow coming from a coder’s audio feed, one MSU mentor commented on the coder ‘s fun “ring tone,” and was surprised to learn that the majority of our coders raise chickens!