Winter and summer breaks can be the perfect times for students to relax and recharge as they prepare for the work ahead in the upcoming spring and fall semesters. Yet for some it can come at a cost. The time away from the classroom can cause them to inadvertently forget much of the material they just finished learning. Montgomery County Community College Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin knows the problem all too well.
“Students go away for break, and they don’t retain the lessons they learned in the program,” she said. “The next semester they come back with lost skills.”
Looking to break this cycle for her students, Dr. Martin may have cracked the code. Last August, she recruited two of her top students, Taylor Bellegue and Lynn Yip, to lead an extracurricular online program to help students re-familiarize themselves with the coursework they’d soon be seeing in the upcoming semester. This free program is called Java Boot Camp.
Run in between semesters, the four-week program is held virtually through the communication platform, Discord. Bellegue and Yip assign projects to Computer Science students of various skill levels and serve as mentors as they look to sharpen their skills in computer wizardry. The course is mainly taught asynchronously, though Bellegue and Yip also provide an hour a day of live, synchronous support. The program is run through the Women In Science and Technology (WIST) and funded by the WIST/STEM department. At its start last summer, the program had 10 students. When it was offered again during winter break, attendance number quadrupled.
Yip and Bellegue serve as student mentors, a task they both really enjoy.
“I think bringing student mentors in is a wonderful idea,” said Yip. “We went through the same classes and had the same fear that everyone is smarter than me. We’re there because we can say ‘we were there too. Everyone feels the same way.’”
“Students can brush up on skills in a non-graded way. It gives them motivation during time off,” said Bellegue. “For students that really think this will be a career for them, it’s a good idea to stay refreshed.”
Bellegue, 32, of Norristown, graduated from Boyertown Senior High School in 2008. She first enrolled at MCCC that same year to pursue a career in computer graphics but left the College for personal reasons. In 2019, she enrolled again looking to obtain a Cloud Computing Certificate. Her academic advisor, Robert Heller, suggested she take an entry level computer programming course.
“Toward the end of the semester,” she said, “Dr. Martin recommended I switch to earning an associate’s degree in Computer Science. I was in a place in my life where I was definitely willing to take direction from people from knowledge and an education skillset. So I switched and I had her for three semesters after.”
Since starting the program, Bellegue landed a role as a student worker at the Help Desk for the past year and a half. She is also a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for community colleges. This month she joined the College as part-time business intelligence data analyst. Bellegue is scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2023 but may end up finishing her degree as early as next fall.
“Students can brush up on skills in a non-graded way. It gives them motivation during time off. For students that really think this will be a career for them, it’s a good idea to stay refreshed.” -Taylor Bellegue
Similarly, Yip, 26, a 2013 Upper Moreland High School graduate, studied piano performance before earning a degree in German and linguistics from Temple University in 2017. Today she works for the Bucks County Library System and is finishing a certificate program in Software Engineering. She plans to continue her education in graduate school studying Computer Science.
The Willow Grove resident said it was living under quarantine in 2020 that forced her to take stock of her life.
“I had a lot of free time,” she said. “I started learning how to code through a Computer Science program online.”
In the fall of 2020, Yip decided to enroll as a Computer Science major at MCCC and has taken her courses online over the last two years.
“It’s been really good,” she said. “All the students here try to work together as best we can. It’s very welcoming and helpful. Sometimes you feel intimidated in programing courses, but if you ask for help, someone will help you. I’ve really appreciated that while I’ve been here.”
Bellegue and Yip said they first began the Java Boot Camp program by dividing students by skill level. Beginners would work together on entry level projects, while intermediate and advanced students would tackle more challenging work.
“Working with most beginner students was an introduction to programming concepts; no code involved,” said Yip. “For more intermediate and advanced students, their projects were about reinforcing concepts they needed to know.”
Beginners explored the website IFTTT.com, for example, which is short for If This Then That. One student, for example, used the website to discover how to program a smart lightbulb to change color depending on the tracking status of their pizza delivery order. Another found a way to receive a text message every time the International Space Station passed over their house.
“You can make some cool stuff without any code at all,” said Yip.
For intermediate and advanced projects, students studied comma-separated values (CSV) files to determine the number of cases of COVID-19 at different area colleges. They also worked with Java tutorials to study topics like Arrays and other coding functions. Bellegue said students also worked with Canvas Viewer to learn how to write and test their coding.
“You put your code through Canvas Viewer and visualize what data structures look like. It’s efficient,” said Bellegue. “I knew most students had been in a Computer Science class before at that point and were still doing that. Canvas Viewer was something we tried to reinforce.”
“Working with most beginner students was an introduction to programming concepts; no code involved. For more intermediate and advanced students, their projects were about reinforcing concepts they needed to know.” -Lynn Yip
Seeing the popular camp’s class size quadruple from summer break to winter break was surprising for Bellegue and Yip, to say the least.
“It’s awesome,” said Yip. “There are so many more people than last time. We’re happy to see anyone.”
“I was blown away when I got the email,” said Bellegue. “We have 40 students. I was at the IT Help Desk and Mary Beaver (Director Enterprise Software Systems), she was a supervisor behind me, and I turned around and said ‘Mary, did you get that email? And she said that’s amazing!’ Everybody was really excited.”
The camp has been a huge hit and Bellegue and Yip said they’ve received a lot of positive feedback from students who’ve gone through the program.
“We gave students an exit survey of Boot Camp and two students left very detailed comments that were so helpful,” said Yip.
Students praised Bellegue and Yip’s ability to prepare them for what’s ahead and make the material fun and engaging.
“I am an older student who found myself having to go back to school,” wrote one student. “It has been a while since I'd taken a college course, and Java was the first course I needed to take. I saw the invite for the Java Boot Camp, and jumped at it!”
“I was very pleased, as it was well thought out, provided options for the different classes (so levels of learning) and the mentors were very responsive. It helped me get a leg up on things I was going to need to know how to do in the CIS111 class, as well as help get my feet wet again with attending classes,” the review continued. “I learned from other participants as well. They make the learning fun with the little challenges and projects. I would recommend this for everyone who has a Java course in their future.”
“I want to say thank you for all your help,” wrote another student. “This was a fun and engaging four weeks and I can’t wait to start my new classes! I feel much more prepared for what’s ahead!”
Now with two camps under their belts, both Yip and Bellegue said they were ready to retire from Java Boot Camp and hand the reins to the next generation of Computer Science students.
“I believe they should keep it run by student mentors,” said Bellegue. “It’s a fantastic idea and it’s less intimidating than if it were run by a Computer Science instructor. I’m coming up on graduation and Lynn is done her certificate program. I said to Sarah Johnson (Enterprise Application Analyst) ‘Sarah, keep an eye out on who to pass it on to.’ Dr. Martin also has an amazing ability of seeing things in people that they don’t see in themselves. I’m sure she’s already got XYZ potential student mentors in mind to take over.”
For students interested in joining the program's next session, contact Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin.