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Updating the GIRLS code: How a WVU Tech student is helping girls explore new careers

A student in the GIRLS program showcases her LEGO robot,

There is a long hallway that runs the length of Collins Middle School in Oak Hill, West Virginia. It’s usually pretty quiet this time of year, but on a Thursday morning in late July, that usual summer quiet was replaced with the sound of chatter, clacking keyboards and the unmistakable whirring of tiny motors.

A group of seventh-graders stood at one end of the hall, watching a small robot make hairpin turns as it navigated its way through a maze of purple tape. When it came to a stop, the girls exchanged congratulatory high fives. They were celebrating the culmination of days of work at the new Girls Interested in Robotics Lego and Scratch program.

GIRLS is a new camp program created and run by WVU Tech computer science student Jordan Bowen. It teaches middle-school students about robotics and coding with LEGO-based robots and Scratch programming.

The program is fertile ground for discussing computer science careers.

Students in the GIRLS program put their programming skills to the test with LEGO robots.Students put their programming skills to the test in a robotics challenge.

"We teach them the basics – algorithms and that sort of thing. Then they get to program robots, which they think is really fun,” she said. “Then we talk about different careers in the computer science and robotics field and how robotics is used in the real world."

The topic was a hit with students like Kyndall Dooley. In that long hallway, the seventh-grader celebrated a successful robot run alongside her teammates.

"We learned how to program a robot, which is a lot of coding. We made it complete a whole maze without touching any of the tape lines," she said.

Dooley said she wants to be an orthodontist one day, but GIRLS drew her attention because she wanted to learn more about technology and coding. Three days later, she was a confident coder.

"Programming is really fun, and I wanted to learn how to do it better. It’s great, even though it’s a challenge," she said.

Starting from scratch

WVU Tech student Jordan BowenBowen

Bowen grew up in Boone County, West Virginia, and had no clue what she wanted to study in college.

"I didn't pick a career field until my senior year in high school, and that was only because I had to," she joked.

She got lucky, though. She chose computer science and found a deep fascination with the devices and programs that impact so much of our lives. Even so, she thinks she would have been better prepared if there was a program like GIRLS in her neighborhood.

"I think if I had a camp like this, I would have discovered my interest in this field much earlier and I could have spent more time planning for it," she said.

Bowen also served as a camp counselor for WVU Tech’s Camp STEM and STEM Summer Academy for Girls programs.  

“Those programs showed me that the impact of being exposed to STEM at an early age is huge. I realized that I wanted to help as many children as I could,” she said.

So she applied for funding from the National Center for Women & Information Technology . And she received it.

“They liked our program because it's a hybrid, meaning there are four face-to-face days and a project that they complete online,” she said.

Students are given a project online through Google’s CS First platform. In the fall, the program team will return to the school to watch presentations from the students. There’s even a component designed to get parents involved.

Those components are designed to keep the momentum of the camp going, and Bowen saw plenty of momentum in those days at Collins Middle. 

"At first, students were pretty interested in their phones. By the second or third day, we're working with the robots and they get excited about coding, so they start working ahead on their own. That's how they're learning, and I think seeing them find that interest and having fun while doing it is so rewarding," she said.

When asked what single concept she wanted students in GIRLS to leave with, Bowen’s answer was simple: "They have the ability to do these types of careers, even if they don't think they can or that it looks too complicated. They truly do have the ability to do whatever they want," she said.

Bowen has applied for additional funding to expand GIRLS further into Raleigh and Fayette counties as an after-school program.

Check out photos from GIRLS on Flickr:

GIRLS: Girls Interested in Robotics Lego and Scratch