Mind-ing their business: Brain Boost makes math and computers fun

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Daniel Colgate designs his own computer game during a Brain Boost camp in Fairfield. (Miriam Kelliher photos)

You might think Fairfield kids would have been avoiding the classroom, or any room, in their final week of summer vacation, trying to suck the last drops of outdoor fun from the August air.

But a small business in a quaint old house overlooking Post Road told a different story as summer drew to a close. It is here that Fairfield residents Meghna and Anand Chavan, and their friends Kenneth and Alicia Simpson, run Brain Boost, a computer and math learning center that hosts camps and after-school and weekend classes for children as young as seven, as well as adults.

“Kids didn’t want to leave at noon” when camp was over for the day, Meghna said. “Then they would do two weeks. Then some would do three.” Anand estimates 70% of the campers who signed up for a one-week session came back for a second.

 

Butterflies and ballerinas

On the last Friday of summer, the campers in Brain Boost’s second-story suite were focused and absorbed in their work.

“It doesn’t have brains of its own,” Meghna gently explained to a fifth-grader completing his second day of coding. “You just have to define the steps and it will do exactly what you tell it.”

What the boy was telling the computer to do, in JavaScript, was draw a complex butterfly made up of multiple shapes and colors on one of the center’s Chromebook computers. The Fairfield resident had asked to come along with his older brother, already enrolled in a Brain Boost camp, and Meghna was guiding the younger boy in writing lines of code for each shape, color, fill-in and dot in the design. “So far he has 42 lines of code,” she said. “Just today.”

Meghna predicted that her student would need 20 to 30 commands more to finish off the butterfly and make it flap.

As they add code to the programs, students can watch their designs change, which Meghna said “is a great way to get insight into Java programming. And it promotes logical thinking.”

But talk of programming and logical thinking is not the way to grab the interest of grade-schoolers. “If you expose them to a lot of technical information in the beginning, they won’t want to do it,” Meghna said. So with this group  she starts off slowly, with programs that include animations like games of tag, or monkeys throwing bananas.

Meghna said she gets ideas from her seven-year-old daughter on fun projects for the younger set. For instance, her daughter prompted Meghna to write code for a ballerina program. “She said, “Mom, let’s do this. I want the ballerina to dance. I want there to be a stage.’ If you talk to them in their language, they can control it, and it empowers them.”

At the other end of the classroom, Anand was working with middle- and high-school-aged campers, filling in for Kenneth, who usually teaches the older kids. The teenagers were busy designing variations on “Cube Runner,” a computer game in which players survive and win by dodging cubes thrown at them through space.

Thirteen-year-old Daniel Colgate, who had been coming to Brain Boost since early in the year, was programming a background, a road and a changing UFO for his customized version of the game, which he had named “Disco UFO dodger.”

Daniel said programming the computer is “kind of like learning another language. You have to learn how it speaks in order to tell it what to do accurately.”

A ninth-grader also working on a Cube Runner variant was plotting points on a grid to tell the cubes where to start and where to end up. “There’s a lot of math involved,” he said.

Looking over his shoulder, Anand said, “programming takes time and perseverance.”

 

Kids, and kids at heart

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Brain Boost co-owner Meghna Chavan works on a computer program at the center’s location in Fairfield.

That’s something Meghna, with an M.B.A. in marketing and certifications in management and accounting — but not computer programming — had to learn herself. As her children grew, Meghna found herself casting around for a business idea.

At the same time, Anand, who has an undergraduate degree in computer science and a master’s in financial math, had begun teaching their 13-year-old son how to program.

“He would spend so much time playing on the computer,” Anand said. “I told him, ‘why don’t you make your own game?’ And he said, ‘O.K. — teach me how.’”

Not to be left out, Meghna said, their daughter insisted she, too, be taught to code, and then Meghna began to learn along with their children.

As she and the kids became more and more adept, Meghna, who also tutored her children in math, said she eventually thought, “Why shouldn’t we spread this?”

The Chavans teamed up with the Simpsons to open Brain Boost last October. Kenneth, like Anand, had extensive education and experience with computer programming, having begun coding at age 8 and securing a college degree and a full-time job designing microprocessors at 19.

Anand describes Kenneth as perfect for the job. “He’s a kid at heart,” he said. “He loves to do this stuff. He sends me emails at three in the morning.”

Alicia Simpson, Kenneth’s wife, brought special education credentials to the team, enabling Brain Boost to design courses for that population as well.

 

Job skills

During the school year, Brain Boost holds hour-long after-school classes from 3:30 until 7:30 in the separate subjects of math and computers. On Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 12 is designated as open time for students to work on computer projects with guidance, and on Saturday afternoons the center holds additional classes, limited to seven students, and one-on-one sessions.

In Kenneth’s groups, older students learn hardware and software programming, including JavaScript, games and animations. After 12 weeks, Anand said, they are ready to move up to advanced animations and Python programming. And those who stay with Brain Boost longer can start designing phone and Facebook apps.

“At that point, they could get a job at it,” said Anand, who in his regular career builds automated trading systems for banks and hedge funds. He added, “Some of them I would love to hire myself.”

Anand designed Brain Boost’s math curriculum to track and augment the Connecticut public school requirements, and he noted that the center offers small-group math tutoring as well. “People will often come in with a specific exam that they are studying for,” he said. “Usually it’s the SAT or the SSAT.”

One woman Anand tutored had failed the Praxis exam, given to public school teachers, a number of times. “She studied here once a week for three to four months,” he said. “Then she passed.” Anand said, “I taught her calculus from the very beginning. She was so excited, she threw me a party.”

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