If you ever feel like being amazed by the innovative capacity of young people, give a room full of high school girls an hour, an iPad, and a basic coding platform. On Monday, December 4th, 35 students from Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) in Los Angeles and St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood gathered together at the Viterbi School of Engineering to take part in Code Dojo, an event hosted in conjunction with National Computer Science Education Week.
During the event, girls from the two local schools met together at Ronald Tutor Hall to hear from Joyce Edson, Deputy Chief Information Officer and Assistant General Manager for the City of Los Angeles. Edson gave a poignant speech about her passion for activism through IT, inspired after learning about her Japanese grandparents’ experience with internment during World War II. Edson also shared details about all the ways the City of Los Angeles relies upon computer science to help in communications, training, and Los Angeles’ extensive operations; she also encouraged high school and college students to apply for internships at the City. Afterwards, the visiting students worked collaboratively on coding animation projects screened at the end of the event.
According to Katie Mills, manager of VAST (the USC Viterbi Adopt-a-Student, Adopt-a-Teacher program), the day’s program was put together with the belief that exposure to engineering might inspire young girls to pursue STEM subjects in the future.
“We’re really excited about having […] the girls work face to face with USC students — it’s more fun that way, and they can really engage with the younger girls,” Mills began. “A lot of what my job is building self-identity in kids who might not know any engineers, so they might not ever imagine themselves [as such] because they might not know what engineers do. This is really about building motivation and self-identity.”
Mills is especially passionate about hands-on learning and the impact that events have like these on students’ capacity to learn and adapt from past mistakes.
“We teach the engineering design process, which includes failure — having to redo things. Many high school students feel like they can’t fail. We have to encourage students to fail and to fail fast, and that’s okay. ” Dr. Mills said.
Several teachers were in attendance alongside the students. The events that VAST puts on are also to reinforce the work that computer science and science teachers are doing in their classrooms.
When asked what was most important about events such as this one, visiting teacher Ashley Fernandes said “The opportunity to come to a location to meet the students who are in the field currently.”
She added, “This is the girls actually getting their hands dirty and doing the projects themselves, whereas if I just show them how to do it, it’s not going to stick in the same way as if they actually do it themselves.”
The students themselves were deeply engrossed with the learning experience, and visiting students Cynthia Sanchez and Sasha Johnson had some pertinent thoughts on pursuing STEM and being women in IT.
“I personally really like the artistic side of coding because I’m an artist — I hate math, but I love to create things, but by coding I feel that it can show my creative and artistic side,” Johnson began. “[But women] need support – my parents said ‘you need to get into this’–my dad said, ‘I don’t want anyone to ever look down on you,’ I feel like this really allows me to be myself and create a space where it is okay to bring out that geeky, nerdy side of myself.”
Sanchez concurred: “I feel like women should be empowered to do STEM, because by the time we get into middle school we’re really denied things; we’re closed off and don’t want to show that nerdy, geeky side of our because of what society plans for us to be. I think that’s why it has empowered me to learn more about STEM.”
After an hour of nonstop coding, the girls finally showed off their projects, screening the short animations at the front of the room. Projects ranged from holiday-inspired snowfall scenes to brightly colored flashing light displays. Stacy Phan (Class of 2021), a student working at VAST and an alumna of Girls Who Code, had some final words on the language that is necessary convincing girls to be engineers as she strode around the room, assessing each project.
“The way you talk to students is a really important thing — don’t tell them “oh, it’s going to be super hard” — I faced that a lot, and it’s really discouraging. Encourage students to just pursue it. Tell them it’s hard, but you can totally do it if you want to try it. Try it and see how it goes!”
In addition to this in-person workshop, VAST and volunteers from USC Viterbi conducted video chat conversations with 40 area classrooms — impacting over 1,100 students for National Computer Science Education Week. One volunteer, Uday Ghatikar, graduated from USC Viterbi years ago with a Masters in Computer Science; he now works as a Customer Engineer for Google. Mr. Ghatikar spent the morning back on campus encouraging the USC students participating in Code Dojo and also connecting via video chat with students in local schools. Given the need for workers knowing computer science – now and in the future — National Computer Science Education Week and Hour of Code as well as local efforts like VAST’s annual Code Dojo work together to inspire K-12 students to give coding a try.