NEWS

Cracking the CODE

Mount hosts technology workshops for young female students
December 06, 2017
NEWBURGH, N.Y. -

Donna Perk, seventh grade social studies teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School (center) and Johnna Touma, technology trainer for the Mount’s Office of Information Technology and Project CODE coordinator (right) teach Bishop Dunn students the basics of robotics.

Donna Perk, seventh grade social studies teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School (center) and Johnna Touma, technology trainer for the Mount’s Office of Information Technology and Project CODE coordinator (right) teach Bishop Dunn students the basics of robotics.

 

The engineers held their breath as they flicked switches, hoping to create light. Finally, one yelled out in excitement, “It’s working!”

These masterminds were not seasoned engineers or analysts, however – they were middle school girls from Bishop Dunn Elementary School in Newburgh, N.Y.

Thanks to a grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Mount Saint Mary College’s Project CODE recently hosted a robotics workshop for female middle school students. Project CODE (Creating Opportunities for Digital Education) is one of the college’s latest initiatives, providing technology workshops and training for underserved middle school girls in the City of Newburgh. The workshops, which are coordinated by female technology faculty and staff at the Mount, began in the spring and have previously covered coding, website design, and more.

At the end of the spring semester, the young students in CODE expressed an interest in building their own technology. As a result, Johnna Touma, technology trainer for the Mount’s Office of Information Technology and Project CODE coordinator, applied for a grant from the AAUW to cover the cost of the robotics kits, which were used for the first time at the recent workshop.

The robotics kits, produced by LittleBits, allow students to learn about electronics creation and functionality. When manipulated in certain ways, students can cause the blocks to light up, make sound, move, and more, creating an introduction to basic concepts like switches and electricity. 

Touma, who spearheaded the creation of Project CODE, began the program as a way to encourage young women to consider careers in technology. 

“I think girls – especially underserved girls – aren’t going into technology careers because they have not been encouraged to pursue them and they have no female role models or mentors in these careers to guide them,” Touma said. “Having a wide range of hands-on computer activities may spark an interest and demonstrate that STEM careers are within their reach.”

In addition to Touma, mentors at the robotics workshop were: Smitha Kakkuzhi, assistant professor of Information Technology; Mayde Pokorny, assistant director of Digital Communications; Sharon Mankiewicz, business process analyst; Margaret Quinn, an adjunct instructor in the Division of Mathematics and Information Technology; and Donna Perk, seventh grade social studies teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School. 

Frances Spielhagen, professor of Education and co-director of the Mount’s Center for Adolescent Research and Development (under which Project CODE falls), who has done significant research on females in STEM careers, assisted Touma in obtaining the grant and also volunteers her time and expertise to the group. 

Kakkuzhi, who was a nuclear engineer prior to becoming a professor, gave the students some simple, powerful encouragement: “All of you could be engineers, building the newest computer gizmo, and making us proud,” she said. “You could be doing something magical.”