July 2018

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If computing and robotics fascinate you, then you will enjoy the upcoming fourth annual Computing Boot Camp being organised by UWI’s Department of Computing and Information Technology (DCIT).

The camp will be held from July 9-13 with the theme: “Bots that See and Bots that Do”. Robotics, extended sensor applications, vision and voice applications are planned together with traditional camp elements (career guidance, campus tours, social events). Guest speakers are confirmed from Google and Virtana.

These camps have proved very successful, as last year’s experience shows. Last year’s Computing Boot Camp began on July 17, 2017 and was held for five days at the UWI, St Augustine Campus with the theme “Code: The Glue that Connects Everything”. Twenty-two secondary school students from Forms 4 to 6 attended and were introduced to the foundational aspects of Computer Science (CS) and Information Technology (IT) using the Raspberry PI microcomputer and programmable robots.

Several schools across Trinidad were represented last year, such as San Fernando Secondary, St Anthony's College, St Augustine Girls’ High School, Hillview College, Holy Faith Convent – Couva, Northeastern College, Trinity College East, and Vishnu Boys' Hindu College among others. The camp was supported by corporate sponsors TTNIC and Republic Bank; philanthropic business sponsors Shami’s Variety, Jazfan Trading and Ardis Limited, and individuals who contributed scholarships for students.

The 2017 Boot Camp was chaired by Dr Permanand Mohan, the current Head of Department. A core team of research students and staff at the DCIT, led by Dr Phaedra Mohammed, coordinated the event with the help of several postgraduate and undergraduate CS student volunteers.

The 2017 camp was designed with a highly interactive, hands-on approach where the teaching sessions involved direct manipulation of the robot code using the Raspberry PI from the first day with an incremental increase in complexity for three days. This approach seemed to promote positive perceptions of CS. When asked to describe the camp in five words, the top responses included “Fun”, “Interesting”, and “Challenging” along with many positive variants. One participant commented, “The programming of the robot was super fun, whether it was the music or the dancing or just making the robot move forward.”

The participants were assigned to teams and used sensors connected to the robots to solve problems ranging from simple movements, to obstacle detection and avoidance, to complicated maze-solving. Throughout the camp, each team was mentored by individual volunteers. The rest of days were allocated to free-form work and mentoring on projects which were also effective in stimulating creativity, building camaraderie and encouraging a fun experience. Overall, the teams produced impressive solutions such that the final maze challenge had to be extended with an advanced stage.

One of the motivating factors for the camp, which started in 2011, is to encourage students to choose CS/IT as future career paths. Several former participants have gone on to pursue various degrees in CS, IT locally at UWI and internationally at the University of Waterloo, and University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Half of the 2017 bootcampers indicated that they are more likely to pursue CS degrees than when they started the camp, despite having other career paths in mind. All of them said that they now feel more confident to be able to handle a degree in CS.

In fact, one former bootcamper completed a BSc CS undergraduate degree at UWI this year and intends to enroll in a CS postgraduate degree at the DCIT in September 2018. He commented, “The DCIT boot camp taught me a lot about the fields of CS and IT, but in a very fun and interactive way. By the end of the camp I had learnt enough to confidently decide to pursue computer science further.” Another former bootcamper, who is currently enrolled in a BSc CS and Math degree at the University of Pennsylvania, commented, "I really enjoyed it, so much that I wanted to volunteer this year (2018).” He will be joining our slate of 2018 mentors in the next edition of the camp this month.