Middle schoolers say “I Can!” to college

“I Can!” students in Rotation 2 take apart a computer with Jaroslaw Zola of UB’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

by Emily Sugarman

Published August 18, 2017

A group of 40 enthusiastic middle school students took mock computer science courses this summer as part of the University at Buffalo’s Liberty Partnership Program’s “I Can” residential summer program.

“These amazing students are keeping us inspired and constantly thinking about how to make computer science more engaging.”
Jaroslaw Zola, assistant professor of computer science and engineering

Oliver Kennedy and Jaroslaw Zola, both assistant professors in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, are part of a team at UB who are working to introduce the prospect of college to students from several City of Buffalo schools who may not otherwise be exposed to university life.

“These students are asking questions or pointing something out, and it's exactly what we were going to ask them to do in order to get to the next step in the lesson plan,” said Kennedy. “It's very rewarding when you have students who are so engaged that they start anticipating where you're going.”

The students, from the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, Tapestry Charter School, and Marva J. Daniels Futures Academy, had the opportunity to stay at UB for three action-packed days. 

The middle schoolers got a taste of the college experience with the message that it is a real possibility for them and within reach. They took mock college classes with current UB professors, toured the campus, met college athletes and stayed in the dorms of the Ellicott Complex

The mock classes covered a wide range of disciplines, augmenting the students' curiosity and inspiring them to think about what they are interested in or passionate about. In addition to computer science, classes included psychology, ecology, African-American studies, and criminal studies.

“The program pushes students to become college students for three days; the students rise to the challenge coming out stronger and more confident, informed and excited about college, and having made meaningful connections with each other and college personnel,” explained Margaret Healy, UB’s Liberty Partnership Program pre-college outreach specialist.

“These amazing students are keeping us inspired and constantly thinking about how to make computer science more engaging,” said Zola. “Even though this is a ’mock‘ class, we are covering material that you could expect in a university curriculum. Making sure that it is entertaining and impactful for younger students definitely forces us to rethink how we communicate computer science. And of course, we hope that someday these kids will decide to go on to college.”

The students also participated in workshops emphasizing social and emotional learning, leadership development, goal setting, and navigating college systems, facilitated by teachers from their schools and Liberty Partnerships Program staff.

Kennedy said, “Liberty’s an amazing program. Great kids and great organizers. In each of the three years that they've been running this program, the students always bring a level of enthusiasm that's very contagious.”

The “I Can!” program is just part of what UB’s Liberty Partnerships Program does. During the school year, they conduct a variety of programs, like weekly socio-emotional workshops in the students’ schools, and a Student Success Skills program, which consists of staff, mentors, and volunteers meeting with students to encourage positive social skills and decision-making. The program also provides resources for students who are getting ready to graduate high school and are looking for financial assistance. 

“I Can” was offered in three session throughout July. The first rotation consisted of 12 girls, the second consisted of 16 girls, and the last consisted of 12 boys. 

The Liberty Partnership Program is a statewide pre-college preparatory organization that provides life-changing programming focusing on dropout prevention to students in grades 5-12, funded by the New York State Education Department. UB‘s program is one of 44 in New York State's consortium.

Oliver Kennedy and Jaroslaw Zola take a break from teaching for a group photo with students in Rotation 2.