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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Spurring Interest in Using Technology to Solve Real-World Problems

By Sherry DiBari

At this year's Great Computer Challenge, Saikou Diallo, a research associate professor at Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis & Simulation Center (VMASC), issued a challenge to the participants.

"We have to be relevant to the times that we live in," he said. "Take advantage of the problems that you see. Be part of the world that surrounds you. If there's something that needs to be fixed, don't wait for somebody to do something. You can be part of the solution. You have a duty to bring the solution to the world to help others. Because you are talented, because you are gifted, and because you have the opportunity."

Two months later, his message is even more relevant as the world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 300 students in 6th to 12th grades from Hampton Roads competed in various computer application and programming skills in subjects such as coding, music editing and web design at the 35th annual Challenge, which was held at Webb Center before the ODU closed because of the pandemic.

The Great Computer Challenge, a joint project of WHRO, the Consortium for Interactive Instruction and ODU, provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their computer knowledge in a competitive format. The event is also supported by Bay Diesel & Generator.

Students are given a problem or problems to solve in the allotted two- or three-hour time period.

Amir Elms, a Norfolk Science, Technology and Advanced Research (NORSTAR) student at Norfolk Technical Center, won third place in music composition with his partner, DeAntre Smith.

"The best part of the day was really just being able to hang out with my teammate and make a really good song and to overall get to creatively use different sounds," Elms said.

This year 97 teams, with a total of 312 students, were registered.

The competition categories included: CAD, cybersecurity, desktop presentations, desktop publishing, graphic design, integrated applications, internet scavenger hunt, music composition, programming-object oriented business, programming-scientific/non-business, video editing, visual programming/block coding and web design.

A special video memorial was shown in honor of Annie Gilstrap, who ran the Great Computer Challenge for 24 years. She died last year. Longtime volunteer Bill Johnsen was awarded the Annie Gilstrap Award afterward.

Diallo related that he grew up in Guinea in west Africa and had never touched a computer before applying to the computer engineering program at ODU.

"It was through working with teams, working with peers, working with other students, that I learned to gain confidence and build up my skills and learn how to be good and love technology and solving," he said.

"This event supports our goals of promoting and integrating technology in regional K-12 schools, both from an instructional aspect and from a learning perspective," said Doug Streit, chief information security officer at ODU and co-campus coordinator for the event. "The Great Computer Challenge plays a part in that mission by spurring interest in using technology to solve real-world problems."

Streit believes the challenge has also helped to spur interest in cybersecurity in the region's high schools.

"When we started the Cyber Security Challenge a few years ago, we had only one school enter teams to compete," Streit said. "This year we have nine teams from five schools."

Christine Murchison, a teacher from Landstown High School, brought 18 students to the Challenge. She said the competition gives students a chance to network with other students from around the region and a way to showcase their computer skills and abilities.

"It's also great for teachers because we get a chance to see what we have taught the students come to life, and see the excitement in their eyes when they're actually getting on stage and winning something. And even if they don't win anything, it still gives them a great experience," Murchison said.

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