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Paxson joins Hack@Brown coding night

‘Python Month’ seminar introduces Paxson, students to beginner coding concepts

Students joined President Christina Paxson P’19 for a night of programming fun Monday, learning vital computational skills in an informal setting as part of “Python Month.”

Approximately 50 students attended the event, which took place in MacMillan Hill and was taught entirely by leaders of Hack@Brown, a student organization dedicated to teaching programming and computer science skills. Within an hour, the students learned the basic programming language Python and developed a working computational program, all while munching on cookies. Aimed at those with no previous knowledge or experience, the seminar was part of a series designed to increase technological literacy amongst students.

Flanked on either side by students, Paxson worked on her own program, which successfully decoded a URL given by the presenters. The URL directed successful coders to a site that offered congratulations and displayed a picture of Paxson’s face.

Paxson said she had previously used programming in statistics and encouraged students to take advantage of available programing opportunities. “There’s a big initiative in data science and data fluency … learning code is great to help at that,” she said. Paxson’s recently released operational plan calls for the creation of a Data Sciences Initiative, which would foster the University’s growth in the emerging field of data sciences through a new research program, undergraduate and master’s programs, a PhD training program, a physical center and data fluency courses for all students.

Alex Karim ’17 led the workshop, giving a step-by-step presentation for participants to create their own programs. Using the online editor on their laptops, students were taught basic programming concepts and guided through checkpoints.

Following each short presentation, audience members were given a short break to add to and debug their codes. Mentors and experienced programmers waited in the aisles to offer help and moral support; participants were also encouraged to work through their problems with others nearby.

The final project was a fully functional Caesar cipher capable of taking in words and encrypting them. With 22 lines of code, students could shift whole sentences into gibberish and back again, much to their satisfaction.

According to a quick survey conducted at the beginning of the workshop, approximately 30 percent of students came in with no knowledge of programming languages.

“This is a good introduction to programming and a very useful skill,” said  Kenji Hayashi ’18, who had no such prior knowledge. Hayashi, a biology concentrator, hopes to take computer science courses and learn more about the field.

Even students with prior programming knowledge said they found the seminar useful.

Avinash Subramanian ’18 said he had previously participated in a Javascript workshop hosted by Hack@Brown, but this event was his first experience with Python. As a geology-biology concentrator, Subramanian said he was interested in the variations of programming applicable to his own field of study.

Nomin Khishigsuren ’17, who studies engineering, knew a bit of the language coming into the event. She said she was excited to learn more and was especially interested in seeing Paxson program, noting that her presence had the potential to make the seminar more interactive.

Karim said all workshops were designed specifically with novice, non-computer science concentrators in mind. She encouraged those who enjoyed the seminar to consider CS0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science” in the spring. “It’s never too late to learn something, especially programming,” she said.

“Python with Paxson” was the fourth seminar offered by Hack@Brown this semester. Future seminars in Python will be held Nov. 11 and 23 as part of “Python Month,” Karim said.


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