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Building Blocks for Girls in Computer Science

With the help of a grant to “Pay It Forward,” a LEGO contest helps girls discover just how cool programming can be. Here’s how Stephanie Ludi did it. Prepare to be inspired.

In the year 2000, the movie Pay It Forward, espoused the concept of repaying a good turn by providing services to others. While the concept wasn’t new – it dates back to Benjamin Franklin, and perhaps as far back as the Greek play Dyskolos in 316 BC – the movie’s depiction of the term captured the interest of many, ranging from college students to Oprah Winfrey.

One example of such a program is the Anita Borg Systers Pass-It-On (PIO) Awards. The Anita Borg Institute, named after a noted female computer scientist,  was founded in 1997 for the purpose of developing tools and programs designed to help industry, academia, and government recruit, retain, and develop women technology leaders. As part of this effort, the Institute sponsors Systers, an electronic community of over 3,000 technical women from more than 50 countries, originally started by Borg herself in 1987.

The PIO Awards, given out twice a year, range from $500 to $1,000 and are funded by donations from the Systers online community. The awards are intended to support women seeking their place in the fields of technology and are open to any woman, in any country, who is over 18 years old and aspires to be in the computing field. Examples of eligible projects include:

  • Helping with educational studies, job transfers, or other transitions in life.
  • Broader projects that benefit girls and women.
  • Projects that seek to inspire more girls and women to go into the computing field.
  • Mentoring and other supportive groups for women in technology or computing.

One example recipient is Stephanie Ludi, an associate professor who is in her ninth year of teaching software engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Henrietta, N.Y. In the spring of 2009, Ludi was awarded a grant of $820US to purchase equipment and pay for team and tournament fees for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League team for girls in western New York. Rochester, a medium-sized industrial city in upstate New York on the shores of Lake Ontario, is perhaps best known as the home of Eastman Kodak. (Oddly enough, Rochester is not known quite as much for also being the home town of Sharon Fisher, but all things come in time.)

FIRST LEGO League is a robotics program for 9- to 14-year-olds that is intended to get children excited about science and technology, as well as teach them employment and life skills. Teams consist of up to ten children with at least one adult coach, who program an autonomous robot using the LEGO MINDSTORMS robot set. The competition has two elements: the Robot Game, where the kids score points on a thematic playing surface, and the Project, where they create a solution to a problem, defined each year. Teams also fundraise, create a team identity, and go on field trips.

LEGO blocksLudi had wanted to lead a team for some time. “But it’s not cheap,” she said. “I couldn’t do it out of pocket.” Expenses include buying the robotics kit, registering the team for the competition, and participating in tournaments, which can cost $200. “It adds up,” she said.

Ludi received the money right on time to register a team for the fall season, she said. She put together the team by contacting Girl Scout troops in the area, and ended up with six girls between fifth and seventh grades. Because of transportation issues, the girls tended to be middle- to upper-class (buses were out of her budget), but they were varied ethnically, with some girls being Asian, some white, and one African-American, she said.

“They were as varied as girls are,” Ludi said. “They weren’t a bunch of little female nerds,” (though it would have been fine if they were, she hastened to add). “Sometimes they had to leave early to go to dances. Some of them played instruments. Most of them were in Girl Scouts.” Only one team member had ever programmed before, she added.

Ludi had not necessarily intended to have a team only of girls. In fact, few teams are all girls; the average team has seven boys and three girls. She noted, though, that in teams with just a few girls, “The girls don’t program the robots; they do the research part,” she said. “That’s kind of disappointing,” because part of the value of the program is gaining those skills, she said.

In addition, her team included two female and two male college students as mentors. It was important to Ludi that some of the mentors be male. “It’s important for [team members] not only to have role models, but also to know that not all males will blow them off,” she said, adding that the men were very supportive of the girls.

The project component that year was transportation. So, living in Rochester, the girls decided to develop a system that would go under the street to warm up the roads to prevent them icing up. That first team didn’t progress beyond the regional qualifier. “It was new for everyone, to understand how tournaments work,” Ludi said. “But they had fun.”

This year, Ludi sponsored another team, which included some of the girls from the first year. She recruited this year’s team through an open house in May. As a result, the girls could meet during the summer and accomplish more, because due to their other activities the girls can’t meet every day. “We met twice a week in the summer and practiced building different designs and programming,” she said. “For the girls who had done it before, it was good practice. So when the theme and challenges were unveiled in September, they had some ideas.”

This year’s team went to the regional championship at the University of Rochester, and won a trophy for the best project, Ludi said. The theme was biomedical engineering, so the team had to research a disorder, or a part of the body, and help mitigate the issue. The girls chose narcolepsy, and developed a model with the LEGOs of a device that would be implanted in the brain. The team was funded by a combination of money from the girls’ parents, Ludi’s department, and some of her personal funds, she said.

Ludi, as well as some of the girls from the previous teams, expects to run a team next year, too. While the specific project has not yet been announced, the general theme is food and water safety. “The kids were all excited,” she said. “I know at least some of them are interested in coming back.” She intends to recruit mentors early, as well as look for corporate sponsorships, which a number of the other teams have.

And what effect has the project had on the girls? Some joined robotics clubs in their schools, and another girl was going to enroll in a robotics class. They weren’t able to get kits at home, due to the cost, but joining the clubs meant the students found an outlet where they can continue to participate, Ludi said. For the girls who had already been involved in math and science, they become more engaged, such as by telling their teachers about their projects. “Reinforcing that connection, and that engagement, was very positive,” she said.

What community actions have you seen that truly encourage young people to get involved with computing? Tell us about them in the comments.

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