Governor welcomes 1,500 students to Ryan Center for computer science exhibition

Event celebrates statewide expansion of computer science classes

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Photo by Nora Lewis.

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 15, 2016 – Computer-operated Ferris wheels, cars built from Legos, mobile apps ranging from Star Wars and Jeopardy! games and food apps were on display on the floor of the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island Wednesday as students, business leaders and educators from across the state met at the CS4RI Summit, hosted by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo.

The event celebrated the advancements of Raimondo’s CS4RI Initiative, launched earlier this year as one of the most comprehensive computer science initiatives in the country. Rhode Island is on track to put computer science classes in every public school by December 2017 to ensure that every student, at every level, has access to this critical skill as early as kindergarten.

“We are going to make sure that every kid in Rhode Island learns computer science skills,” Raimondo told the assembly of more than 1,500 students.  “It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, or what race you are, whether your parents went to college, what neighborhood you grew up in or your zip code, you will have the opportunity to learn these skills to get good, high-paying jobs in the future.”

The summit brought together middle school, high school and college students, industry professionals, training providers and community members to showcase projects, research, education and career opportunities related to computer science and technology. Exhibitors included representatives from business and industry — such as FM Global, Microsoft, Citizens Bank, Lifespan and many more — as well as colleges, universities and kindergarten through grade 12 schools.

The Rhode Island Department of Labor & Training predicts the state will add 4,000 jobs in computer science and math by 2020, and many of the companies who will do the hiring were in attendance at the summit.

“We are excited to host the CS4RI Summit here at the Ryan Center,” URI President David M. Dooley said. “The companies that are here today are real. The jobs are real. And the money you can make in these jobs is real.”

Barbara Cottam, chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education and an executive vice president at Citizens Bank, pointed out that technology is a pervasive part of our lives, affecting us in ways we may not realize. As such, opportunities for employment with a computer science background will grow in the years to come.

“The students here today are our future, and you need expertise to get the jobs of tomorrow,” Cottam said. “The governor put $250,000 in the state education budget to put computer science in every school in the state, so she’s doing her work. Your work is to be prepared and be qualified for those jobs.”

Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Innovation, said the CS4RI initiative has helped more than 180 schools statewide put computer science programs in their classrooms this year, with more coming to the rest of the state’s 306 schools in 2017. He said it’s the only such effort in the nation.

“It’s an ambitious goal and it’s a lot of work, so we wanted to pull together an event to see all we have learned so far in the first phase,” Culatta said. “This summit allows us to help build close relationships with the businesses and schools who can provide funding and mentorship to help educate these kids. Let’s face it, they want to give our students jobs. The students may have a ways to go, but the building blocks to getting those jobs are here.”

For many students, the summit was an opportunity to learn about the jobs that are out there they may not have conceived of, such as technical jobs in health care, banking and cybersecurity, and to participate in activities that might whet their appetite to learn more about computer science.

For others, it was a chance to showcase what they’ve already learned with exhibits in the center of the Ryan Center floor. URI sophomores Sal Bustillo Jr., of Warwick, and Sean Tissiere, of Westerly, displayed a mobile video game app they designed called “Defend the Death Star.”

A day before the release of the latest film in the Star Wars franchise, Bustillo and Tissiere showed passersby their modified Pong-style game in which the player must prevent a bouncing proton torpedo from destroying the Death Star, complete with music and sound effects from the films.

“We wanted to combine our love of video games with our love of Star Wars to make something fun and new,” Bustillo said.

“It was overwhelming to think about all the coding we had to do make this simple game at first, but after a while, it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed,” Tissiere said.

Another group of students designed a Jeopardy! based quiz app, in which players must correctly answer seven of 10 questions in each of five categories to reach Final Jeopardy! and win the game. Devin Soares, a sophomore from Johnston, John Motta, a freshman from Lincoln, and Angela Gjojdeshi, a freshman from West Warwick, teamed up for two to three hours a day over the course of several months to design the app, which they said they are still debugging.

“We were talking about doing a quiz app, and I love Jeopardy!, so we decided to base it on the show,” said Gjojdeshi, a psychology major who said her computer science courses have piqued her interest in pursuing a double major.

“Debugging it is taking a lot longer than we thought it would because every time you change one thing, you have to change something else,” said Motta, a computer science and chemistry major who hopes to design functional apps.

“We’re hoping to just entertain some people,” said Soares, a computer science major who would like to become a video game developer. “Sometimes you need to just blow off some steam on your phone and this is a fun way to pass the time.”

The large turnout at the summit, which grew from an expected pool of about 25 students into the more than 1,500 who attended, was a great sign that students are responding to the CS4RI initiative, Raimondo said.

“I think this gets students excited about computer science and gets them thinking about the jobs they can get in a digital world,” Raimondo said. “They can see all the cool things they can do as they head into the workforce.”