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Girls dive into computer science during GEMS

by Bri Chapman
NCSA Cybereducation Intern

Instead of spending their summer at the pool this year, 38 middle-school girls plunged headfirst into learning with hands-on experiments with math, science, and programming concepts during Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) camp at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Since 1994, GEMS has involved middle-school girls in activities designed to boost their confidence in using math and science and to encourage them to pursue advanced math and science study.

Throughout the week of the GEMS camp (June 27 to July 1), the girls were provided with laptops for a number of projects, including programming using ALICE, and reading about important historical figures in computer science.

Using ALICE, a program developed by Carnegie Mellon University to facilitate the creation of animations and to teach object-oriented programming concepts, the girls created presentations including 3D animations covering a wide range of plots. The concepts demonstrated in ALICE, such as “methods,” “objects,” and “classes” apply to all object-oriented languages and have value well beyond the user-friendly ALICE program.

“ALICE was a really good starting block for making animations,” said one GEMS student.

Staff walking into the NCSA building were surprised one morning to see complex designs made of masking tape on the floor of the atrium. The GEMS students soon learned that the designs were part of a graph coloring activity, in which no two connected nodes could use the same “color.” The girls enjoyed standing on the nodes of the graph and “coloring” it using different poses to represent different colors. As is usually the case at GEMS, with this activity the girls discovered the lesson to be learned on their own. They were challenged to create a graph that had to be colored with a minimum of five colors and to prove that it required five colors. Because this resulted in a few failed attempts, the students soon discovered as a group that this was an impossible task, and that every map imaginable can be colored with four colors. This taught the girls that even everyday problems such as coloring maps, doing Sudoku puzzles, and arranging schedules have roots in computer science.

Providing confident, successful female role models to the girls is a high priority of GEMS, so throughout the week the girls heard firsthand from high school and college students about their preparations for technical careers. Margarita Mouschovias, a graduate of University High School, explained how she had enjoyed working at NCSA with Blender, a 3D rendering program, and about her plans to attend Carnegie Mellon in the fall to major in computer science. “I shared my experiences with a Rube Goldberg competition, LEGO NXT Robotics, as well as iPhone programming that made me interested in computer science.”

GEMS Instructor Celestine Kao, an Illinois undergraduate computer science student, shared her experiences working on origami and engineering problems with Eric Demaine, an associate professor, a MacArthur Fellow and Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in computer science at MIT, whose unique ability to bring mathematics to life includes folding and unfolding as an exciting problem to solve using geometry. During the lunch break each day, Kao was surrounded by eager listeners as she animatedly described her time at New Trier High School as well as life with her mathematician father. She told stories about building a solar powered go-kart, a working pipe organ, a potato cannon, and many other science projects. She explained how mathematics was intimately involved in each of those projects and spared no details about her interest in engineering, science, and math. The girls’ faces as they listened showed just how “cool” science and math had become to them.

The girls were always interested in what’s going on and they really enjoy the hands-on activities, which included programming, graph coloring, phylogenetics, origami, the Turing Test and more.

One GEMS student remarked, “I enjoyed doing hands-on activities because we were able to participate.” Many others agreed and requested even more hands-on activities next time.

“GEMS has opened up a new world for me,” said one young woman, “Learning and seeing basic programming has been really fun and that has made me become a lot more excited about computer science.”

Another student agreed, adding, “Girls can be computer scientists and don’t have to be afraid about it.”

The 2011 Illini GEMS program was sponsored by NCSA and the Blue Waters project. It is supported by the National Science Foundation and the University of Illinois, and is directed by Edee Norman Wiziecki, director of Education Programs at NCSA.

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