As a high schooler in a rural Maine town, Regan Bragg ’21 faced what many other students still encounter today: schools without computer science classes. Now she’s turned that disadvantage into advocacy for early exposure to computer science and other STEM topics.

A mathematics and computer science double major, Bragg has imagined and implemented a program to boost young Mainers’ interest in programming and computer science. Bragg’s brainchild is the WJHS Coding Club, an afterschool club for students at Waterville Junior High School. It uses a cadre of 20 Colby mentors to teach 12- and 13-year-olds basic programming skills and show what computer scientists can do—and can look like.

“I think that if you give students computer science at this age and it really sparks an interest in them,” Bragg said, “then that’s something that they’ll be able to carry throughout high school and potentially into a college education.”

Bragg developed the club as an O’Hanian-Szostak Fellow for Civic Leadership. The fellowship supports student leaders committed to civic responsibility, a mindset she has embraced as a second-grade mentor with Colby’s Math Mules program at Waterville’s George J. Mitchell School.

Last fall, as Bragg formulated the club’s logistics, she reached out to Doug Frame, assistant principal at the WJHS, which is piloting a computer science program for seventh graders. Implemented by the Center for Curriculum Redesign, and funded by the Harold Alfond Foundation, the pilot program is in its second year in the Waterville schools.

Frame connected Bragg with the school’s computer science teacher, Ben Luce, and with Kim Quinn Hutchinson, executive director for the pilot program. These contacts gave Bragg an insider’s view of the pilot’s mission and curriculum, creating a base of knowledge from which she built the club’s curriculum.

Regan Bragg, a mathematics and computer science double major, as she works with the coding program that she’s teaching students of Waterville’s public schools.
Regan Bragg, a mathematics and computer science double major, as she works with the coding program that she’s teaching students of Waterville’s public schools.
Regan Bragg, a mathematics and computer science double major, as she works with materials that she’s using to teach students of Waterville’s public schools.

Top: Regan Bragg ’21, a mathematics and computer science double major, uses the language Python Turtle in the coding club she designed for students at Waterville Junior High School. Bottom left: One of Bragg’s lessons in Python Turtle. This lesson taught students how to create a dictionary, a data structure that stores information and is accessed using a key.  Bottom right: Components for Bragg’s group project for the Computer Science course Interactive Systems II. The group is building a Covid-19 symptom checker, which will allow users to enter symptoms, take their temperature, and receive simple medical advice.

 
The WJHS Coding Club introduces students to Python Turtle, a text-based language that requires students to actually type out code. In weekly lessons, students use Python to implement newly introduced CS concepts such as variables, functions, and lists. Along the way, students make artwork and age-appropriate graphics to make coding fun.

“The club gives our students an opportunity to take something they’re interested in to the next level,” said Frame. “They can really dive into coding with students who are more versed at it than we are here.”

From Hutchinson’s perspective, Bragg’s club helps build interest with all students, including kids who tend to fall through the cracks. “Our program is focused on providing a broad scope of CS skills and 21st-century competencies for all students, including those who don’t necessarily have CS support at home or may lack higher-level math and science skills necessary to take AP courses,” Hutchinson said. “When these students have more skill-building options, as with clubs like Regan’s, they’re more likely to sign up for CS courses in high school.”

“Programming computers is fun, but not enough girls grow up to become programmers specifically or computer scientists in general. When girls can engage in programming opportunities and see women in leadership, they can better envision computer science as a path for them.” —Stephanie Taylor, associate professor of computer science

The ultimate goal is to increase the number of students trained to work in computer science jobs currently left unfilled nationwide due to a lack of skilled workers.

Coding Club members meet virtually in small groups with mentors recruited and trained by Bragg. Most of the mentors are young women, which speaks to Bragg’s goal of changing perceptions about computer scientists. She knows firsthand that it’s empowering to have female role models—45 percent of Colby’s Computer Science Department’s faculty are women. She wants her mentees, half of whom are girls, to have that same advantage.

“Programming computers is fun, but not enough girls grow up to become programmers specifically or computer scientists in general,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science Stephanie Taylor. “When girls can engage in programming opportunities and see women in leadership, they can better envision computer science as a path for them.”

Bragg hopes that at least one of the Colby mentors continues the club next year when she’s in graduate school. “I see this program as having a really big impact,” Bragg said. “It’s something that can set a strong example for other schools to follow.”

Right now, the benefits for WJHS students are real.

“Regan has put together a tremendous program to give students in Waterville a chance to see that computer science is for everyone,” Taylor said. “And that includes girls.”