Connecting Girls with STEM Role Models

Connecting Girls with STEM Role Models

Monday, November 6, 2017

Students arrive at the CO.LABVisitors to Pullen Park in Raleigh last week may have noticed a new, albeit temporary, addition to the park. For two days, a mobile lab parked on the grounds as middle school girls from Wake County gathered inside to learn about STEM, coding, and collaboration.

Red Hat, the open source software company, sponsored the event as part of their new CO.LAB initiative to empower girls through the principles of open source.

The fourth and final stop on the mobile lab’s tour of the East Coast, Raleigh is also home to Red Hat’s headquarters. The lab previously traveled to Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. reaching out to middle school girls in those cities.

Inside the lab, whiteboards are covered in positive messages of support and encouragement from participants in each of the previous cities.

A STEM Community for Girls

Student participants work on their digital cameras. On the first day, eighth-grade students from the Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy learned how to write code and build digital cameras using small, single-board computers called Raspberry Pi. They also heard women in STEM at Duke and N.C. State University talk about what they love about their field and the different experiences that led them to their work.

Aria Chernik, the director of OSPRI (Open Source Pedagogy, Research + Innovation), housed in Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute and Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, talked with the group about the role of collaboration in education and learning.

The leader of a Bass Connections team exploring 21st-century education, she was thrilled to speak to the CO.LAB participants about her work and vision for education.

“It’s not just teaching technology,” Chernik said, “but a way of approaching the world that is about inclusion, diversity, and collaboration. All the things we want students to have and to do and to be.”

“I think it’s really important to model leadership and collaboration, so that [the students] know they’re authentically invited to reach out to people who are in positions to help them in their decision making, in school, and in their career, that there are people who want them to succeed,” she said.

OSPRI's Aria Chernik and Sharon Peng speak with student participants.Students from N.C. State University’s engineering program and Duke’s computer science and statistics programs also spoke about their experiences as women in STEM.

They shared lessons they learned when they were younger, like the importance of intellectual curiosity and trying new things, as well as what experiences shaped their paths the most.

“When I was a student in middle school like them, the most important thing was knowing that there were so many opportunities,” said Sharon Peng, a Duke University computer science and statistics student and member of the OSPRI Bass Connections team.

“I think having opportunities like Bass Connections, Duke Engage, and these other programs at Duke that encourage learning in different environments really helped encourage me to seek out things that were interesting and also pushed me beyond my comfort level,” she said.

Participating in the CO.LAB event meant Peng could share these experiences with younger students and let them know about the different interests she explored before deciding on computer science and statistics.

Through CO.LAB, she could be part of a community of support for the younger students. It’s something she sees as instrumental in guiding more young women to STEM fields.

A student participant takes a photo of Raleigh.“It’s one of the hardest parts of being a female in STEM,” she said. “Having a community like this lets students know that there is that support there, not only right now, but also in the future should they continue to pursue STEM or have other interests or questions about things they want to pursue.”

More Than Just Coding

CO.LAB is more than just a chance to work with technology, though. It’s also an opportunity to work with others and collaborate on a project from start to finish.

After building their cameras, the participants got a chance to photograph the city taking inspiration from the Dora Sigerson Shorter poem “I Am The World.” They then worked in small groups to select the photograph that best represented Shorter’s poem.

It offered a chance for the young women to exercise their voices, assert their opinions, and work with others in a setting where they felt empowered to do so.

Student participants present their photos as a group.“Giving them this safe space where they can feel comfortable, have the opportunity to learn about this technology, learn what goes inside of it, and work together on a project, I think that’s incredibly important,” said Tom Callaway, Education Outreach Team Lead at Red Hat and co-author with Ruth Suehle of Raspberry Pi Hacks.

“We see this as a great opportunity to show these women that they have this chance, that they can do these things with technology, and learn how to leverage technology in their own lives,” he added.

Through CO.LAB, Red Hat and its partners demonstrate that open source isn’t just about software, but a whole approach to interactions and learning.

Callaway’s hope for the initiative is that partners like Duke and N.C. State University will embrace the open source nature of it and build on the curriculum, something Chernik especially sees as her role with CO.LAB.

“The real goal and desire from here is to iterate,” she said, “to maintain and grow the community, so that when these girls leave they’re connected with other girls, professors, and technologists who participated and we can continue to grow so it’s not just a one-off event, it really is a community.”

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