Coding And Fake News Program Offered At Port Library

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Back in February, it seemed pretty straightforward. Alexandra (Allie) Salzman, a junior at Port Washington Schreiber High School, would combine the two subjects she loved into a hands-on summer class to introduce computer coding and misinformation on social media to Port Washington-area girls. Armed with a $2,000 grant from the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT), Allie approached the Port Washington Public Library which graciously offered to sponsor the event over four days this summer.

But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, worked and studied. By the end of April, with the knowledge that social distancing would likely extend into the summer, Allie began working with the library staff to adapt the program to an online learning setting. She will now teach the class online over four sessions in June. She also adjusted the focus of the class to allow the students to use JavaScript to build their own computer game and learn to identify fact from fiction with a particular focus on fake pandemic news.

Unlike what she learned about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, this time, the fake news surrounding the COVID epidemic – from dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice to false treatments and homemade cures – had a life or death impact on people around the world. To better prepare for the program, Allie reached out to Howard Schneider, executive director of Stonybrook’s Center for News Literacy and former editor of Newsday, who agreed to be a guest speaker for the session on fake news.

“Learning how to tell fact from fiction is very important since so many students get their news from social media and the internet,” said Amy Christake, the Port Washington librarian who has worked closely with Allie, along with her library colleague Rachel Fox. According to Common Sense Media, 76 percent of pre-teens and teens get their news from social media and 31 percent share information that they later learn was false or inaccurate.

Allie is the first NCWIT AspireIT grantee from her high school and hopes to inspire other girls to continue this program with the library. When she was younger, the only classes offered with a live mentor were expensive summer camps attended mainly by boys. Allie hopes that “this class will attract girls not already interested in computing by making it fun and free.”

She plans to share her curriculum nationally for others to use as a model. “This could not have happened without the amazing librarians (Amy Christake and Rachel Fox) who helped me brainstorm about the curriculum and transition the program online, or the support of the library foundation’s president Beth Ain and Director of Development Leila Noor, who helped me with my first grant application.” Allie is also grateful to her former teachers and her guidance counselor who helped her spread the word. When the class moved from the library – where pizza and dessert would be offered – to online, she was worried that there would not be enough interest in the class. She is happy to share that class is full and the library has created a waitlist, showing the high demand for technology education for young women. For more information, vist: aspireit.aspirations.org/programs/events/24204/learn-code-and-be-digitally-literate.

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