LOWELL — It is 2:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon — dismissal time at Lowell High School. Hundreds of students spill into the downtown streets; some are headed to sports practice, others are off to work or to hang out with friends.
Something else is happening inside the building. In room 237, two dozen students, laptops open, are eagerly honing their coding skills, learning the computer programming language Python under the direction of two of their peers — senior Kenneth Chap and junior Ibraheem Amin, co-founders of LHS’s newest computer science club, The Programming Initiative (TPI).
Nearly 80 students also tune in online through Google Classroom, where Chap and Amin upload the presentations from their weekly coding lessons.
“Python is generally used in all applications, like machine learning,” Chap said. At the end of the course, club members will be able to “make applications on Discord,” he added.
Following the recent drops in high school MCAS STE (Science, Technology & Engineering) scores across the state, now more than ever it is becoming dire to increase access to fun, interactive STEM experiences.
Last summer, Chap and Amin met through the Google Coursera Certificate Program, offered by the local educational non-profit, Project LEARN. The cost per student for the Google Coursera program is $500, and through grants and corporate sponsorships, Project LEARN can deliver IT Support, Data Analytics and Project Management certifications to 50 students this year at no cost to them or their families.
With the high demand for these programs, Project LEARN Executive Director LZ Nunn anticipates doubling the number of students served to 100 next year. “These students are so jazzed about what they learn, and empowered to gain tech-savvy skills they can use at a future job,” said Nunn. “This is a program that can really deliver on preparing our young people for the jobs of tomorrow.”
“We wanted to do the Google Coursera program because I saw the course as an opportunity in a specific field that I was interested in,” said Amin.
After completing the Google Coursera program, Chap and Amin felt inspired to start their own club that would be open and accessible to all of their classmates at the high school.
“We wanted to create a club that is a way for people to explore their programming interest and what computer science is like without being completely invested in it,” Chap said. “We even have programming challenges for beginners, so that way they don’t stare at us confused looking at all the code, they can actually type it out and interact with it.”
Chap and Amin said that they came up with the idea of starting a computer science-focused club at LHS because they wanted more opportunities for students to learn about science related fields beyond biology, chemistry and physics.
“Outside of those sciences, there aren’t many computer science classes,” explained Chap. “There are only three offered at our high school, and there is no AP computer science course.”
This isn’t just a Lowell High problem. According to a recent report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, only 6% of high schoolers in Massachusetts took a foundational computer science course in 2019-2020.
“Kenneth and Ibraheem are an outstanding example of students who not only saw a gap, but also took concrete steps to create positive change,” said Mira Bookman, program director for Project LEARN. “When they both brought up the idea of starting, we wanted to do everything we could to support them.”
Project LEARN provides a budget of $1,000 towards TPI’s program supplies and $500 stipends to both Chap and Amin. Bookman continued, “Breaking down barriers in the STEM field starts at the school-level, and change is most powerful when it’s student-led.”
TPI member Victoria Prak, a senior at LHS, said she was interested in joining to explore her future career options and because of her interest in computer science. She said she is learning a lot and likes Chap’s teaching style.
“He does a good job of giving examples and demonstrating,” Prak said.
In a recent class, Chap, who has applied for early decision to MIT to study computer science, explained the different applications of Python and how to use it by utilizing relatable examples such as data related to favorite Halloween candy or the temperature of the porridge in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Making the data sources simple, provides an easier path to understanding how the program works.
“I like that we can express our passion for programming and spread it to everyone else,” Chap said. “I am looking forward to bringing in some guest speakers.”
Teacher Advisor Paul Morse said he has been blown away by Chap and Amin’s knowledge and drive.
“I am here to advise, but they have done all the work like preparing the lessons and teaching the course,” he said. “It is really incredible. I give them teaching technique tips, but everything else is all them. They even bring in snacks and sometimes pizza for the club.”
When asked if they had any advice for fellow students who see a problem and want to address is it, both Chap and Amin were ready to extend their support and confidence.
“You should explore your interests, do research about them, and start applying what you learn to projects, so that you can learn more and also implement them,” said Amin.
Like Amin, Chap, too, encourages others to be go-getters, and to be the change they want to see.
“Don’t wait around for opportunities to come,” he said. “You can definitely find them online. “Explore your interests and don’t worry about the obstacles ahead of you because you will eventually overcome them.”