It’s been more than a year since University of Virginia alumna Sarah Lau and several of her former McIntire School of Commerce classmates taught coding to students at Charlottesville’s Walker Upper Elementary School, yet the looks on the children’s faces – their pure excitement for learning – remains fresh in her head.
“One kid said that he wished he could do the lesson plan every day,” recalled Lau, a 2019 graduate from Milwaukee. “All the kids were very engaged with the program – which is quite a feat for a classroom full of 30 fifth-graders.”
The program, Coding for Kids, was made possible by the Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Alumni Association, which awards grants to University students, faculty and staff in support of innovative ideas enhancing the student experience, University community and society at large.
Lau came up with the idea for Coding for Kids with McIntire assistant professor Chris Maurer. The goals were to empower young children to get excited about technology, when they may have had only limited exposure to it before, and to bridge the gap between UVA and the local Charlottesville community.
“We wanted to create an extracurricular opportunity for [UVA] students to give back to their community and to promote an ongoing commitment to using skills and knowledge to promote positive change in the world,” Maurer said.
With the help of a $2,400 “flash” grant from the Jefferson Trust, Coding for Kids purchased supplies that supported lesson plans, including coding robots based on NASA’s Mars rovers, lockboxes with codes to solve, books and takeaway gifts for the kids to help promote their continued engagement in the learning.
“It was super gratifying to see an idea that we had and a vision to make a difference turn into something tangible and successful,” Lau said. “This program had a large impact on the greater McIntire community in the University, for which I am extremely proud. McIntire does not have a formal community outreach program, unlike other schools in the University.
“Coding for Kids helped fill this gap, and as such, many faculty of McIntire, particularly in Student Services, have mentioned the importance of this program to our school and their desires to see it continued in the future. In this way, it felt like Coding for Kids could really help make a lasting impact.”
Lau and Maurer can’t say enough good things about their experiences with the Jefferson Trust.
“I think that this program showed that these goals of the trust, and the importance of enhancing the student experience, can have cascading positive impacts throughout the school, and throughout the community,” Lau said. “When the trust empowered us, students, to start a community outreach program, we were able to show UVA’s broader focus on community-building through education.”
Maurer knew nothing about the trust’s flash funding opportunities until receiving an email. He said he wasn’t sure whether their idea was appropriate for a grant, but decided to apply anyway.
“I am incredibly thankful that we did,” Maurer said. “The proposal review process was incredibly easy and once we received approval, accessing our funds and coordinating with the trust was completely painless. After attending the reception and hearing all the other projects that were funded our year, I am simply astounded by the diversity of projects and impacts that come out of the Jefferson Trust.”
The Trust’s flash grant cycle is currently in progress. Flash funding is available on a monthly basis, until funds are depleted. All proposals submitted in a month will have a decision by the 15th of the following month.
“In this virtual world, we are trying to find additional ways to reach and inform students of opportunities they have in this strained time,” Jefferson Trust development associate Andrea Seese said.
Brent Percival, who took over as the Jefferson Trust’s executive director following longtime director Wayne Cozart’s retirement in December, is excited about the future.
“Funding students’ ideas is a hallmark of the trust,” Percival said. “Students are creative and resilient. While there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, supporting students like Sarah is always a solid investment.”
Maurer is hopeful about restarting “Coding for Kids” and building it into a more stable, ongoing partnership within Charlottesville’s schools when the world returns to normalcy after the pandemic.
“When teaching classes, I always try to establish strong connections with my students,” Maurer said, “but this project provided an opportunity to forge deeper relationships with my students and see them creatively explore problems to design a top-notch program for children.”