A Remarkable Summer Experience at the iLab
Hi everyone! I’m Zane Cochran, the visiting instructor at the iLab for summer 2013. While I have been here I have had the opportunity to teach a variety of courses including Physical Computing, Beginner and Intermediate Python Programming, and Photography. It has been a remarkable experience being in Liberia and getting to work so closely with the other talented members of the iLab team!
As an introduction, I am a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and studied computer science at Berry College. This fall I will begin graduate studies in Human Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech University. I first heard about the great work that was being done in the iLab from Dr. Ellen Zegura, a professor at Georgia Tech who works closely with the Carter Center and frequently partners with the iLab’s efforts. I arrived in mid-May and will sadly be heading home at the end of June, though my time here has been wonderful.
One of the most exciting opportunities I have had in the iLab is getting to share my passion for physical computing with a very select group of students. Physical Computing is a course where students are encouraged to learn the concepts of programming and circuit design through building fun and interactive objects. Through overwhelming support from many friends and colleagues in the U.S., I was able to raise the necessary funds through a crowdfunding campaign I created called “Makers in Monrovia” to purchase all the equipment, tools, and components necessary to allow physical computing to have a permanent presence in the iLab as more and more students discover it.
The course was met with equal excitement by the students who were accepted into the program. Throughout six rigorous weeks of training, they learned principles of interactivity, prototyping, hardware design, and programming using the Arduino platform. Arduino is an inexpensive microcontroller and a programming environment that, while popular in North America and Europe, is just now beginning to emerge in Africa. The students completing this course will be among the first few here to have used it extensively. Their greatest accomplishment, however, will be demonstrating their final creative projects at the end of the course. These final projects are all targeted toward an interactive object that improves life in the kitchen, though each is very unique and the result of students using their imaginations to innovate. The will have a great opportunity to present their prototypes during a public event where they will get to explain their creative process and the outcomes of what they learned during the course. I was also privileged to have given a public talk during the evening on the subject of Physical Computing and the impact it is having both in the world of computer science and in Africa. The talk was well attended and generated interest for future courses and opportunities to learn more about this exciting new field of learning.
Teaching Python courses is quickly becoming a summer tradition at the iLab. I was happy to teach three Python courses during my stay in Liberia. In addition to a Beginner and an Intermediate Python course, I enjoyed teaching the newly created Python for Girls course. This course consisted of 15 specially selected young women who showed a particular interest in learning programming. Through the few short weeks of this class, it has quickly become one of my favorite courses to teach. The young women in this class have dedicated themselves to becoming amazing programmers and through their hard word and willingness to help each other, they are succeeding! My other students who will be completing the Intermediate Python course have also done remarkably well and are excited to take the fundamentals of programming that they have learned and apply it toward a variety of interests including database management, web development, software and mobile application design, and learning additional programming languages.
Finally, it was a real treat for me to be able to share my second passion, photography, during the Introduction to Photography course that I taught. I was quite shocked to see how quickly students improved their style and technique in capturing the unique life and landscape of Liberia in the few short weeks that we were able to meet. One particularly interesting aspect of this class was the students’ willingness to meet with me outside of class on Saturdays for a “Photography Outing” where we would travel together as a group to various places around Monrovia to gain practical experience using the DSLR cameras and implement the techniques I taught during our class lectures. This led to a number of unique experiences and the collection of student photography can be seen at the course’s Flickr page here. Though the course has concluded, the students will continue to use the iLab’s DSLR cameras and meet as a regular group to capture photos of this beautiful city and country.
In every course, the intelligence, dedication and passion that I have seen in my students is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Whether it’s students staying well past the end of class time to share what they’ve learned during class on their blogs or coming in on Saturdays to meet during an unofficial programming group I created to learn Processing (a visually-intensive language based on Java), the self-motivation I have seen in these students is unparalleled and speaks well to continued growth and future of Liberia. I’m just thankful to have been a very small part of it!