Code camp: Pace hosts tech “collaboratory” for high-school programmers

Photo by Alex Ellefson More than a dozen high schoolers participated in the 2016 STEM Collaboratory Camp.
Photo by Alex Ellefson
More than a dozen high schoolers participated in the 2016 STEM Collaboratory Camp.


Downtown’s Pace University helped high schoolers to hone their coding skills — while helping oysters clean up the environment — in its latest STEM Collaboratory Camp.

More than a dozen high schoolers created apps and websites to help volunteers work with the Billion Oyster Project — an organization dedicated to restoring oyster reefs in New York Harbor. The group of 17 students were split into four teams and paired with a mentor from Pace University’s computer science department, completed their projects during the program’s two-week summer camp.

Shaina Peters, 16, who has taken computer-science classes at Stuyvesant High School, where she will be a junior in the fall, said she enjoyed the opportunity to put what she has learned to practical use.

“I like how I’m able to think of something and then just build it,” she said at the program’s July 29 graduation.

Pace’s STEM Collaboratory camp, sponsored by AT&T and now in its third year, aims to encourage student’s enthusiasm for the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — while encouraging collaboration among its graduates.

“As you go out into this field of STEM, where it’s so competitive and really fierce, I want you guys to be more fierce,” Lauren Birney, head of the STEM Collaboratory, told the graduates. “But don’t lose that human aspect. The human aspect being that you can never be too compassionate, or too kind, or too gracious. That will never fail you.”

The program introduced students to the essential tools of web programming, including how to write code using JavaScript, HTML and CSS, as well as how to use databases and make their apps interactive. Each team’s app contained information about the Billion Oyster Project, as well as a way for volunteers input oyster population data — which would yield an interactive graph showing what the information means for the health of the harbor’s oyster population. One of the teams added a game in which the user has to keep a virtual oyster alive.

Bryson McClure, 17, who will be a senior at Mahwah High School in New Jersey in the fall, enjoyed the intellectual challenge.

“It was really interesting and there was a lot to figure out,” he said. “I liked the challenge of being given a task and then having all these tools to solve the problem.”

For her part, Peters said she prefers software development to the Web-focused skills she learned in the summer camp.

“Web development is annoying. I like software development because it is more straightforward,” she said.

The students in the STEM Collaboratory didn’t spend all their time in front of a computer. The summer camp also included an excursion to the Billion Oyster Project’s headquarters in Governors Island.

Computer novice Alex Carlin, a 14-year-old incoming sophomore at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, said he enjoyed combining computing with the outdoors.

“I came into this program with no coding experience, and now I see how technology is everywhere and can be used for almost anything,” he said.

One of the STEM Collaboratory Camp’s goals is to involve students from diverse backgrounds in the overwhelmingly white, male tech sector — a point driven home by keynote speaker Diana Murakhovskaya, co-founder of the female friend-finding app Monarq.

When Murakhovskaya worked in finance, she noticed that 85 percent of her coworkers were men, and when she made the switch to a technology startup, she and her co-founder knew they wanted to hire a female developer to work on their app — but the faced a problem.

“We couldn’t find them anywhere. They were all hiding,” Murakhovskaya said. “So we thought, we’ll throw a hackathon and the women will come and we’ll trick them into working for us.”

The event accomplished more than just helping Murakhovskaya with the personnel issues.

“There were these amazing outcomes that came out of it: women going on to coding schools, doing further coding development, we had male and female mentors around showing what it’s like to work at these really amazing companies,” she said.

Murakhovskaya said she is now working to create a fund to support female coders and entrepreneurs in the technology sector.

Peters, who hopes to pursue a career in computer science, said she was encouraged by the female speakers’ promise of a more inclusive future in the computer industry.

“I’m going to be one of the beneficiaries,” she explained. “I look forward to there being more diversity and not working in a male-dominated place.”