Students Mentor Young Women in Programming

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BGSU computer science students are coaching the next generation through an innovative program designed to encourage females to study science. Made possible by a $10,000 Google IgniteCS grant plus an additional gift from the widow of a former faculty member, the new program—Code4Her—provides free computer science mentoring for girls in grades 5 through 8. Mentors are students in the BG Women in Computing (BGWIC) organization. Participants learn the basic principles of computer programming via Lego Mindstorms robots.

Lecturer and BGWIC faculty liaison Jadwiga Carlson had received previous Google grants and proposed the idea to the group. They applied and were approved in fall of 2016, and offered Code4Her in spring 2017.

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“We filled all the slots quickly,” said Carlson. “The 32 participants came from 18 communities around Northwest Ohio, and there were another 30+ on a waiting list. I had hoped to get five mentors and ten girls – we did much better than that!”

Code4Her mentors are a diverse group of students in terms of gender, ethnicity, educational level (there is one alum), and various class ranks. Most of them had attended one of Carlson’s robot-programming workshops offered periodically to BGWIC members, and all attended a training session prior to the first session. Each of the 16 mentors worked with two girls during the five sessions of the program.

Lego Mindstorms is a programmable robotics construction set. Carlson was trained at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy to use the robots for education. She has used them in her classes and also, for four years now, at BGSU’s Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) days for middle school girls.

“Lego blocks are instantly familiar to all students,” she said, “They provide a comfortable atmosphere where students are not apprehensive but open to learning and experimentation. They catch on very quickly to programming concepts this way. It seemed like a perfect fit.

“In the first meeting we taught the girls about the binary numbering system and how it can represent the way computers store data, instructions, and information. They performed some conversions from decimal to binary and represented various quantities in binary. In addition they encoded their own first names using binary to represent characters (ASCII code). Then we introduced them to the LEGO EV3 robots configured as puppy dogs. The girls were ‘training’ their dogs to sit, stand, bark, recognize colors, etc.”

Google IgniteCS provides funding for groups of university students to make a difference in their local communities through computer science mentorship. According to the IgniteCS website, a computer science education offers “a pathway to innovation, creativity and exciting career opportunities.” BGSU’s Code4Her was one of only two programs in Ohio funded by it in the last annual cycle.

“We are incredibly honored to have been selected,” said Rebeccah Knoop, BGWIC president. “Our members are passionate about supporting girls in computer science and we wanted to expand our outreach. We are not a large organization but we believe we can have a great impact on the community and are thankful to igniteCS for recognizing that and supporting our program.”

Carlson said that Code4Her benefits not only the girls but also their mentors.

“We hope that our students inspire these young girls to consider some area of science when they go to high school and later on college,” Carlson said. “We hope that the CS students who serve as mentors gain self-confidence, practice their communication and leadership skills, and feel involved in computer science education and our department. And we hope that though their active engagement in this outreach effort they will become better students, more motivated, and that our retention rate of women undergrads will also be improved.

“There has been a shortage of women working in the computer science as long as I can remember. In my programming classes I often have one to four girls in classes of 35 students. It’s lonely. Code4Her and BGWIC provide a way for these female students to discover that they are not the only one, they can form friendships and help each other out.”

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Due to the popularity of the program, Carlson plans to offer it again in fall of 2017, and perhaps to develop a new curriculum for spring of 2018 with new topics for girls in middle school.