Google grant helps student organization teach youngsters about computer science
By Tiffany Capuano, Kennesaw State University
MARIETTA, Ga. (June 27, 2016) — With only 25 percent of professional computing occupations held by women, Kennesaw State computer science students are hoping to grow that number by reaching out to the next generation of young girls and sharing their own passion for technology.
This summer, 12 student members of the Object Oriented Owls, a new female computing organization at the Marietta Campus, are volunteering their time at Girls Inc., a national organization that empowers girls to succeed.
With $10,000 from Google’s IgniteCS initiative, the team of computer science majors will spend four weeks teaching young girls about computer programming to encourage them to pursue technology-focused careers.
“Our student organization wants to teach girls to translate their ideas and use their creativity through code,” said Kate Zelaya, president of Object Oriented Owls and a computer science major in the College of Computing and Software Engineering. As mentors and volunteers, the college students hope to show the many sides of computing and inspire the young girls.
Alyssa Cohen, a senior computer science major, remembers how she was encouraged by her family when she had an interest in technology.
“My mom would buy small robotics kits for my birthday each year,” Cohen said. She wants to share her passion for technology and be the supportive voice for other young girls.
“I grew up with so many women role models in my life that really showed me that I am just as capable as anyone else,” Cohen said. “It is exciting to volunteer with the young girls this summer because I can be one of the people that shows them that they, too, can succeed in STEM.
“Learning to code at a young age is important because it’s a great tool to allow kids to express creativity,” Cohen added, explaining that art and animation are key aspects in the technology field. “Computers and robots are increasingly what our day-to-day lives rely on.”
The Object Oriented Owls hope to spark girls’ interest and see their volunteer work as one way to help close the gender gap in computer science, explained faculty advisor and assistant computer science professor Amber Wagner.
“When young girls have the skills, knowledge and resources of computer science, they are able to invent all sorts of cool things and have no limitations as to what they can do,” Zelaya said.
The volunteer mentors spend about six hours each week with nearly 100 girls, teaching five different groups ranging in ages from first grade through high school.
Relating programming to a game of “Simon Says,” first and second graders learned how to use Scratch, a visual programming language, to “tell” an on-screen cat avatar how to move.
Another class filled with third and fourth graders creatively built Lego structures and programmed them to move, while fifth and sixth graders mastered how to program Lego Mindstorm robots, grasping concepts such as looping and touch sensors.
“I think this is a great way for us to introduce programming to young girls and give a general idea of what computer science is,” Zelaya said. “We want girls to know it’s more than the typical stereotype of a guy hunched over typing programs all day with no social life. Girls have the world at their fingertips because with a single line of code they can make an impact.” The 1.5-hour weekly class expands on knowledge gained from week to week.
Most of the young girls indicated that they liked computers but had only used them at home and school for homework or academic games.
Jalyn Batts, a rising fifth grader at Bryant Elementary, said that it was fun to code.
“It’s challenging and frustrating but that’s what makes it interesting,” she said. “We’re told by adults that there are many more things we’re going to need to go for a job. It’s cool that we are learning this.”
The grant offset the costs to buy Android devices for app making, purchase software and the Lego robotic kits, and pay for students’ background checks to work with the youngsters. Laptops from KSU’s University Information Technology Services were loaned to the student organization for the summer session at Girls Inc.
Corby Herschman, development director for Girls Inc., is excited about starting this partnership with Kennesaw State University.
“We like that our girls get to see young college students who are doing what they’ll one day be doing – taking college courses, applying for scholarships,” she said. “It’s nice to see how to get the girls where they want to be. Our motto at Girls Inc is ‘girls can’t be what they can’t see’, so it really helps for them to have great role models.”
The computer science sessions provided by KSU students are expected to continue into the academic year as an after-school program.
As for the Object Oriented Owls, they hope that the young girls experience just how powerful code can be.
– Tiffany Capuano; photo by Lauren Lopez de Azua