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UT Dallas CS and IT Empowerment for Her Program Promote STEM Education for Middle School Girls Through Weekend Workshops


Last January and February, Saumya Rawat, a senior at Dallas’ School of Science and Engineering Magnet, worked with Dr. Janell Straach, a CS Professor and the Director of the UT Dallas Center for Engaging Women in Cyber Security, to once again offer weekend workshops to middle school girls from underrepresented areas in Dallas-Fort Worth. The workshops were similar to the weeklong summer camp that Dr. Straach and Saumya held last summer, but this time the workshops were geared more towards computational thinking, programming, teamwork, and the applications of robotics. Approximately 70 young girls attended the workshops. The programs were free thanks to a grant that Saumya received from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). We spoke to Saumya about the IT Empowerment for Her workshops and her work promoting STEM education within the North Texas community. Below is our conversation with her.

You did two-weekend workshops in two months; can you tell me a little bit about them?

IT Empowerment for Her provided two similar robotics weekend immersion programs in January and February. Our programs introduced middle school girls to computational thinking, programming, teamwork, and the applications of robotics. The girls used Scribbler 3 robots and the online BlockyProp platform to program their robots to move, flash lights, and create sounds. The drag and drop programming allowed girls to easily test out new ideas to make their robot perform skits, dances, and songs. Additionally, the girls interacted with the larger FRC 5057 robot and discussed the necessity and future of robotics. The girls presented their robots and posters illustrating a community issue they felt important to them. Our programs have been free, based on a grant received from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), and girls all across the metroplex were able to register. My team and I are very proud of guiding the next generation of women in STEM, and we are looking forward to seeing how the girls grow and hopefully come back as leadership members to encourage and empower others.

Were these 2-day workshops connected to the camps that you ran last summer?

These weekend, 2-day programs were additional workshops hosted by IT Empowerment for Her, a non-profit organization that provides free STEM programs to middle school girls. Our programs have been held under the mentorship of Dr. Janell Straach. Additionally, these programs were made possible by our team of volunteers and mentors: Olivia Castro, Dalia Quezada Campos, Leslie Jaramillo, Joceline Villalba, Cristina Cervantes, and Saumya Rawat (myself).

What made these workshops different from the summer camps?

While these weekend programs covered robotics, our summer camp focused primarily on Android app development using App Inventor. Our summer camp during the summer of 2017 was our first program; it was a three-day weekday camp with around 30 participants. Since then, we have continuously grown to a point where we have approximately 50-70 participants at each of our robotics programs.

What was the inspiration behind the lesson plans you taught?

I was the only girl in many of my STEM classes growing up, but I have persevered to learn and apply my knowledge towards research, clubs, and organizations. In my first Java class at age 13, I was the only girl and took note how the class was structured. That weekly class was focused on individual assignments. It Empowerment for Her gears our lessons to reflect team building and creativity, skills that are important in the real world. Additionally, we allow the girls to choose their own community-impacting issue rather than assigning them.

I saw you brought your own robot, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

I am the Outreach Captain of my school’s robotics team, FRC (First Robotics Competition) Team 5057 Robobusters. I brought our 2017 Steamworks competition robot to show the girls that it is possible to build a robot capable of moving, collecting balls, and shooting balls controlled by a joystick. I encouraged the girls to use the joystick to drive the robot and explained key elements of its design. I could see the girls light up at the chance of driving the large robot, and I hope it has further sparked their interest in STEM.

I noticed that the girls were very excited and interested in your robot when they were playing catch with it, do you plan to set up any future classes where you teach young girls how to build robots similar to yours?

My school’s robotics team and our organization are planning to partner together to mentor younger robotics teams. The FIRST organization has three levels of competition: First Lego League (FLL) (elementary – middle school), First Tech Challenge (FTC) (middle – high school), and First Robotics Competition (FRC) (high school). I hope to get girls involved in FLL, where they will learn to build small-scale robots for their competition season. My experience on FTC and FRC has taught me much about mechanical, electrical, and computational components of robotics, and I believe this hands-on approach is the best way to learn how to build a robot.

Will you be doing any more workshops or camps in the future?

 IT Empowerment for Her is planning to host another app development program at UT Dallas over the summer through an additional grant by NCWIT. Additionally, we are planning to expand over multiple national regions as our leadership team enters college all across the country. Similarly, we hope to partner with local organizations to continue to bring STEM education to girls in the DFW area and across the globe. We enjoy sharing our passions with younger girls, and we hope the free opportunities we provide will spark STEM interests in the next generation of women.

It Empowerment Spring 2018 – February Class

Below are a few photos taken from one of the sessions.


ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT

The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 2,400 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,000 master’s students, 150 Ph.D. students,  53 tenure-track faculty members and 38 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2017. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.

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