Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), a Qatar Foundation partner university, has launched its first virtual outreach programme for high school students.
Mindcraft Virtual is an online reimagining of CMU-Q’s popular Mindcraft program, which has introduced the field of computer science to nearly 5,000 students since it began in 2016.
“We have re-invented our outreach strategy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Khaled Harras, computer science programme director at CMU-Q and co-director of the Hamad Bin Jassim Centre for K-12 Computer Science Education (HBJ Centre).
“For Mindcraft Virtual, we revamped one of our workshops to become more online-friendly, and we fully developed a new robotics programming workshop specifically for the virtual experience.”
A collaboration between CMU-Q and the Jassim and Hamad Bin Jassim Charitable Foundation, the HBJ Centre aims to introduce school-aged children in Qatar to concepts and career paths in computer science. Mindcraft, one of HBJ Centre’s initiatives, typically holds more than a dozen one-day workshops each academic year.
“Computer science is essential to many fields of study, as well as many existing and emerging industries,” said Saeed al-Hajri, board member and CEO of Jassim and Hamad Bin Jassim Charitable Foundation. “With the pandemic and the move to remote work, we are seeing now more than ever how computing skills are critical for the next generation.”
Harras sees computer science as a crucial enabling catalyst for nearly every discipline, including those in the sciences, humanities, engineering and medicine. “Computational thinking is new math of the 21st century. We hope that programs like MindCraft will help young generations recognise this so they can remain competitive in future markets and economies,” he said.
Mindcraft was created for high school students with a wide range of computer science backgrounds, from those with no experience at all, to those who have strong skills in programming. Each session covers two main topics: conceptual thinking and programming a robot. In Mindcraft Virtual, these topics are now done entirely with online tools.
“We feel the conceptual portion of Mindcraft is especially important,” said Nour Tabet, outreach co-ordinator and the facilitator of both the in-person and online workshops. “A lot of computer science work is about thinking through problems. The robotics section is fun and practical, but the conceptual activities really give students a key perspective on computer science.”
Mindcraft has been an important gateway for high school students in Qatar to learn more about the field of computer science and the many career paths that graduates can pursue. When CMU-Q moved to remote teaching due to the pandemic, in-person Mindcraft workshops were also suspended.
To go virtual, the Mindcraft team carefully assessed various online tools and the format of the experience. After months of research, writing and testing, they launched the first Mindcraft Virtual for 12 students last week. Tabet invited two students who had attended previous in-person workshops to attend so they could compare the experiences.
Mindcraft Virtual will continue throughout the summer, and Harras and Tabet anticipate the online sessions will continue, and grow in numbers, until the pandemic restrictions are lifted. In fact, this milestone opens the door for greater future impact and reachability that will no longer be limited by physical presence at the workshop.