Forging computational superstars: the Fort McMurray success story

Something interesting is happening in Fort McMurray’s Westwood Community High School.

If you scan the news section on the school’s website, you’ll see references to:

  • A grade 12 student winning a medal at the 2018 Canada Wide Science Fair for his project using AI and RFID for medical smart technologies.
  • Students creating a group called YouthComputing to teach coding, programming, and robotics to elementary school students, with the vision to “become a widespread computer science and STEM education organization that reaches youth across Alberta”. (They also organised the first hackathon in the region.)
  • A grade 12 student winning a $100,000 scholarship to attend the University of Waterloo.
  • Another grade 12 student scoring 74 out of 75 at the Canadian Computing Competition (the second highest mark in Canada).
  • Students from the Green Initiative Club winning $20,000 from Samsung Canada’s “Solve for Tomorrow Challenge”, which they will use to host weekend STEM camps for kids in grades 4 to 9.

If you then look through the programs offered by Westwood, you will also see an eyebrow-raising range of computing classes, including:

  • Programming for Virtual and Augmented Reality
  • Digital Design — “This includes learning how to build websites, use Google suite tools, create for platforms like YouTube and podcasting, and creating basic apps.”
  • 3D Modelling and Printing
  • Coding — “Our student learn coding in multiple languages, including java, python, swift , C#, and C++.”

All told, the school offers 12 computer science classes, teaching not just coding and basic app building, but also artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cybersecurity.

So proficient are its students in computing, many have taken on paid contracts from local businesses, and are working with local government to build apps for them. And as well as running after-school STEM classes for elementary students, some of Westwood’s teenagers will even begin teaching coding and giving workshops and classes to students and adults at the local Keyano College.
 

How is this (relatively) small high school in northern Alberta producing such strong computing talent?

“We think outside of the box when it comes to training our students,” says computing science teacher Said El Mejdani. “People are often afraid that kids can’t handle complicated topics, like Python and Java. Why are we making it so easy for them? Why do we have to turn learning into a game, with drag and drop functionalities? We’re misestimating their potential!”

El Mejdani came to Fort McMurray a decade ago with a background in computing science, but was just teaching math and science in the local schools when he was approached by Westwood students in 2015 to help them with building an app. What began as an after-school computer club quickly grew to become a series of computing classes offered to all Westwood students.

Of the total student population of 650, 250 have now signed up for optional computing courses. When Westwood is joined with École McTavish Junior High this fall, 100% of the grades 7-9 students will be taking these courses.
 

Teaching above and beyond

The topics these students will learn frequently go above and beyond the basic provincial curriculum requirements. El Mejdani encourages his students to put in the maximum amount of time and effort to learn coding, and build applications. “I go hard on them,” he admits. “I believe I’m serving them better by going beyond, and constantly incorporating what’s new.

“When I don’t know the answer, I will reach out to experts who can come in and help. Some of them come from other cities or provinces (or even the USA) to teach my students, and will even pay for their own travel to come, because they see how beneficial this is to the students. I figure, there’s no harm in asking big names in industry to come, because many of them will say yes!

“In many ways, it’s a nightmare for me as a teacher, as I can’t plan the curriculum well in advance, but have to keep it open. But I see my job as helping the kids to be as successful as possible.”
 

Supporting multi-generations

The proven success of these students so far has led to requests for technology learning support not only from younger elementary students in Fort McMurray, but from people of all ages.

“The biggest need I was finding was from adults,” says El Mejdani. “Especially engineers, who are feeling the need to learn these new skills as they pivot their careers. Some of them asked if they could come and sit in my high school classes!

“My students came up with the idea to partner with Keyano College. We created our first workshop at the college to teach programming to anyone in the community. 76 people signed up for that first workshop. We had more people than space in the computer lab!”

Going forward, staff and students at Westwood are planning to grow their outreach to local schools and community members through more workshops, classes, hackathons, and by even organizing tech conferences.
 

Sharing lessons learned

El Mejdani will be speaking at the Cyber Summit this November about the steps his school has taken to improve the computational skills of students, and how others can do the same for their students.

Ultimately, he says, schools need to incorporate more real-world technologies in the classroom, and push their students to master these skills. “It’s no different than competitive sports. We expect our athletes to put in long practice hours, and give 100% effort. You have to really challenge kids to get the most out of them!”