DAHLGREN, Va. –
“I had no idea I wanted to study computer science when I was younger,” said Kelly Morgan. “If not for this one HTML project in college, I don’t think I would have wound up majoring in computer science, or working at Dahlgren.”
Morgan now specializes in computer science at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) and she credits this happy coincidence of fate from earlier in life with providing the inspiration for her current volunteer work. “It’s one of the reasons why I want to make sure that students get that exposure to STEM when they’re a little bit younger,” said Morgan, referring by acronym to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “It doesn’t have to start in high school or college - STEM can start in much earlier age groups.”
To that end, Morgan recently wrapped up another successful year leading an after-school coding club at the nearby Dahlgren School. Using virtual learning technology, Morgan and several other NSWCDD volunteers provided hands-on educational activities for about a dozen students in grades four through six.
Students in the coding club learn to work in a language called Scratch, which is designed to work with drag-and-drop principles that students find intuitive, and somewhat related to a video game. “On the Scratch website you pick up a block from the web interface and drag the blocks around to construct your programs,” said Morgan. “It develops basic problem solving skills and programming concepts like loops. We do all sorts of lessons like that to gamify the material.”
Morgan reports that her students even went so far as to request lessons in advanced concepts that went well beyond her initial plans. “We started learning Python at the end of the year,” she noted with a laugh. “I was not the one who thought of that - the kids came to me and asked. The volunteers and I had to figure out how to make it work at their level.”
NSWCDD has - for years - operated an outreach program that connects passionate volunteers with local school groups that might benefit from STEM educational activities. In addition to giving back to the local community, this initiative also has the long-term benefit of encouraging students to develop technical skills that will help build the Navy of the future.
“Our outreach with the surrounding area includes everything from robotics clubs, coding clubs, SeaPerch and SeaGlide,” said Morgan. (SeaPerch and SeaGlide refer to educational tools that help students learn about STEM concepts by building their own remotely operated submersibles.) “We do a small amount of computer literacy” to cover prerequisite skills, and “we’ll do things like ‘Meet an Engineer,’ where an employee from Dahlgren will talk about their career and answer the students’ questions.”
With the benefit of remote learning technology that was widely adopted during the 2020 pandemic, organizers of the STEM outreach program at NSWCDD hope to expand Morgan’s coding club in the years ahead to reach a broader group of students in terms of age and geography. “Now that we’ve kind of been able to figure out how to make virtual outreach work, we’re hoping to expand that into the surrounding areas,” says Morgan. “We really want to make sure that students who may not otherwise have exposure to programming or STEM get that opportunity.”