By Kyla Mora
Isabelle Lozano sits in the far back of the room at a computer, listening to the snatches of conversation floating around her.
“Download Google Chrome. You need an antivirus. There might be malware attached,” a girl to her right explains to her friend.
“It’s not a hack, anyone can do it!” says a boy to her left.
“Let me sign into my Google account,” mutters a girl sitting three computers away, while the boy directly across from her types commands that make his Google home page melt across his screen, then begin to rain animated cats.
Lozano sits, doodling in her notebook, waiting for the session on video game design to start. At 13 years old, she’s one of the oldest students in the room.
Lozano, who will be entering the eighth grade at Wallace Middle School this fall, is one of the Hays CISD students selected to attend a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Innovation Camp, hosted by the nonprofit Skillpoint Alliance.
Beginning June 13, three week-long camps were launched at Barton Middle and Pfluger Elementary schools that focus on game design and coding. Three more sessions are scheduled for June 20-24 and two for June 27-July 1.
This is the first year that Hays CISD has hosted these camps beyond the high school level.
“We just did high school last year, and we had a massive response. So many students applied,” Hays CISD CTE Director Suzi Mitchell said. “So we added elementary and middle school this year, and we still have openings for the next two weeks.”
Mitchell said the camps expose students to training in Scratch, an MIT-hosted coding system designed to teach students animation and click-and-drag coding. The system also teaches video game design and Makey Makeys, which allow students to turn any object into a touchpad that they can merge with the internet for interactive activities and gameplay.
For students like Lozano, this kind of camp can open up new possibilities. As part of the Gifted and Talented program, Lozano took Gateway to Technology (GTT) courses in sixth and seventh grade. Her father enrolled her in the video game design camp prior to her eighth grade year.
Much of the appeal of the camp lies in the challenges it presents, Lozano said.
“I like the programming. I like that it confuses most people, they think it’s hard, and for me being able to do something that’s difficult to most people makes me feel accomplished,” Lozano said.
Lozano has also read stories and done research on those who created “things like Facebook.” She discovered the founder of Tumblr was a high school dropout, but is now a millionaire.
“So, I think maybe if I go through high school and keep doing coding, I can do something with it,” Lozano said.
Something, perhaps, like the Velocity Prep camp currently running at Hays High School, where 40 students from both Hays and Lehman High Schools partner with clients in the tech industry to engineer solutions in a month-long, paid-internship style camp.
“We give high school students an internship program where we pair them with industry clients, and they solve a real problem that has a social impact,” said Velocity Program Lead. “They create their own company. We give them two facilitators to guide them, but they run the program on their own.”
The four-week intensive Velocity Prep camp operates much like a paid internship. Students who are selected are paid $800 for the month, with the possibility of a shared bonus at the end of the month.
Once the groups are partnered with a client, they generate a prototype design and presentation, which they will present on June 30 to the clients and the community at large.
Due to the “overwhelming” response from Hays CISD, Silva said, Skillpoint Alliance chose to run two projects simultaneously instead of their usual one per school. This allowed 40 students to participate, where normally only 20 are selected.
“We received over a hundred applications,” Silva said. “So we decided to do two projects last year, and we did again two projects this year, because the Hays students are awesome, and so into it. They take the initiative and really dive in.”
This year, project clients include TinyHackerHouse, which tasks students with designing and developing a “smart tiny home” using technology or micro controller devices to “reduce the impact of flooding in Hays County,” Silva said.
Web hosting service WP Engine is another client, where students must develop an interactive website that “illuminates what websites are impacted by servers that have gone down” and “come up with ways for the company to visualize the physical servers that host their sites.”
Velocity Prep students also are provided with guest speakers and site visits on Friday, where they visit locations chosen to complement their assigned projects. They also receive job skills training.
“They come out with a resume, an email that is fairly professional, and we also teach them how to come up with an elevator pitch,” Silva said.
The end goal, Silva said, is to connect students to STEM and to their communities.
“This is about designing their future homes or workplaces or communities,” Silva said. “This is a way for them to have a look at what’s going on and how it can impact their future.”