Women teaching women in a field traditionally dominated by men.
That’s the idea behind the Mississippi State University sponsored Bulldog Bytes camp hosted this week at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Columbus. The all-female summer camp is designed to attract young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
According to Sarah Lee, MSU computer science professor and director of the day camp, the 23 third, fourth and fifth grade girls participating in the camp are learning computer programming, problem-solving and cyber safety.
“The goal is to light a pathway for women in the state,” Lee said. “I think if you can engage them at an early age, they get that spark that ‘this is really cool. I like technology. I’m comfortable with it, and I can make this robot do things.'”
Lee said throughout the week campers are using a programming language called “Snap!” to control their own Finch robots, small bird-shaped machines used to help students visualize the coding instructions they enter into a computer.
“It’s really problem-solving because programming is problem-solving,” Lee said. “They’re learning to give commands to the robot … they’re learning the algorithmic (language).”
Those algorithms, Lee said, are like recipes.
“A computer can’t think; it only does what we tell it to do, so someone has to write a program, and behind that is the design of the program, which is an algorithm,” she said.
Pilot success leads to second year
Lee said this year’s Bulldog Bytes camp in Columbus is based on a camp her daughter, Mary Lee — a 2017 Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science graduate — led in 2016. Last year’s camp, also held at St. Paul’s, was funded through a grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
She said the pilot camp partnered with Bulldog Bytes, the outreach program in her department at Mississippi State, to again offer the program free for participants.
MSU received a cyber security grant from the National Security Agency to fund this year’s program.
“It’s to teach these young women to be safe online, and to hopefully spark some interest in computer science and cyber security, so that they’ll go on to other programs and later to study it in school,” Lee said.
Litnay Lineberry, an MSU student pursuing a PhD in computer science with a focus in K-12 STEM education, has helped prepare material and activities for Bulldog Bytes this week, and she said the program plays an important role in engaging groups who are typically underrepresented in the STEM field.
“It’s good to see all these kids, young females, interested and engaged in robotics and what we’re teaching them here,” Lineberry said. “What Dr. Lee is doing here is really reaching a lot of kids that may not (otherwise) have this opportunity.”
Before becoming a computer science professor at Mississippi State, Lee worked in the Information Technology department at the international shipping company FedEx.
“I was in meetings a lot, on teams a lot. The women were definitely outnumbered and so were the African Americans,” Lee said.
She can’t pinpoint exactly what sparked her passion for helping underrepresented groups find their way in the STEM field, but Lee said she felt she had to do something in the years before she retires to help women and other minority groups find a seat at the table.
“We need them at the table, and they can be at the table,” Lee said.
According to statistics from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women comprise only 26 percent of the computer science workforce, despite making up roughly half of the United States population.
“If males are the only ones developing new technology,” Lee said, “then we’re missing out on half of the creativity and innovation that could come from having the other half of the population at the table.”
Starting at a young age
Lee said it’s important to influence girls’ perceptions about what’s possible earlier in life.
“If you try to reach young women once they’re already in high school, it’s really too late,” Lee said. “They’ve already formed the ideas about what they can and can’t do or about what they want to do or don’t want to do. These elementary girls catch on really fast, faster than some of the older ones.”
She said most Bulldog Bytes camps recruit one gender for a reason.
“For (these young girls) to be out here programming these robots to do something, it’s not a threatening environment, and that’s one reason we have the gender specific — so that they can learn and don’t feel like they have to impress the guys,” Lee said. “One thing that I’ve noticed, too, is the guys will try to do it for them if we have the mixed-gender environment.”
Bulldog Bytes counselor Annalisa Robertson, New Hope High School sophomore, won an Aspirations in Computing Award from MSU last school year and is one of seven camp counselors, five of whom are women.
“Men don’t have to be teaching women,” Robertson said. “Women can teach women because women are powerful. They have just as much knowledge as men do.”
And Lee argues the learning cannot stop when the camp ends.
“It’s important that you keep them engaged. We can’t just have a summer camp, and then they go home, and there’s never anything else,” Lee said. “They come to this. We make sure they know about other things that we’re having so they can come to (events) throughout high school and then when entering college.”
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