by Kelley Weiss
DAVIS, Calif.; August 9, 2016–A UC Davis College of Engineering summer camp is bringing together middle-school-age girls to teach them how to program robots to fix a pressing problem in our society. The C-STEM Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp shows students how they can use teamwork to combine math, science and engineering to bring robots to life.
About 20 seventh and eighth grade girls participate in the week-long camp on the UC Davis campus. This year the program expanded to school districts around the region including Sacramento, Woodland, Mt. Diablo and Benicia. Since the program started in 2013 it’s seen an increase in applications each year and tuition is free for the students accepted to the GIRL camp.
Ada Liu, a UC Davis third-year student majoring in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is one of two coaches for the UC Davis GIRL Camp. The camp-goers start the week with little knowledge of computer coding. They’re then put into groups and identify a problem that their robot can solve. At the end of the week Liu said the girls have to show a video they produced of their robots at work and give a presentation.
Liu said she watches the middle school students’ faces light up when they learn a concrete way to use computer code.
“The reason why I went into engineering is because I was part of a robotics team in high school,” Liu said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have known what it meant or what engineering looked like or if I’d be able to do it.”
Now in college, Liu’s giving younger students the same experience by teaching them how to program Linkbots. The students learn how to make these modular robots that look like oversized spools of thread roll forward and backwards and even sing songs.
Brianna Bouknight, an eighth-grader from the Sacramento area, says it was important for her to come to a STEM camp for girls.
“It’s really empowering because usually we aren’t expected to do this kind of stuff because it’s only for boys,” she said. “This really helps us be more confident that we can do anything.”
Her team’s robots are programmed to help in forest fire management. She said working with a group of girls was a great experience. At her school she said sometimes boys in the class try to take over projects involving math or science. But this camp, she said, showed her a different side of learning.
“The smartest person in the class doesn’t have to be a boy it can also be a girl,” she said.
2016 UC Davis GIRL Camp. Photography by: Katherine Lin/UC Davis
Bouknight said she needs that confidence so she can get up in front of her peers, and their parents, to present the project with her team.
“They also taught us how to do public speaking better, like make eye contact with every person in the room and make sure to speak loud and clearly,” she said.
Professor Harry H. Cheng, of the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, says when he designed the program he specifically wanted it to target girls in middle school.
“Middle school is the time students determine what kind of career they are going to pursue and it’s the most critical time because when they go to high school they kind of have their mind set on what they want to do,” Cheng said.
In addition, Cheng said having the program at UC Davis gives parents an idea of what their child is working towards.
“They can see the campus life and for many of them their parents haven’t graduated from high school or are immigrants and have no idea what college looks like,” Cheng says.
Cheng is the director of the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM (C-STEM) Education. This center coordinates the GIRL Camp and is a UC Approved Educational Preparation Program for undergraduate admission to all UC campuses.
Several students at the UC Davis GIRL Camp said that after going on campus tours and spending a week at the College of Engineering they’re interested in becoming a student at UC Davis.
That was the case for Clara Luisetti. She’s an eighth-grader from Nevada City and said she’s learned a lot about how to apply her favorite subject, math, to programming a robot. This, she said, has given her a glimpse into what she could do later on as a career.
“I think it’s really good just because of all of the opportunities out there and there are so few girls in the field,” Luisetti said. “It’s good to have a camp where just girls can come here and they’re encouraging girls.”
Her team made their Linkbots into sharks that helped move trash from the Great Pacific garbage patch, a waste dumping ground in the ocean. They named the sharks “Jaws” and “Bruce.” While giggling they explained that in honor of the big election year their robots were eating presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Professor Cheng said he eventually hopes to secure more funding to expand the camp to a national program. In the meantime, another goal is for the GIRL Camp participants to share what they’ve learned with their schools. The curriculum developed by UC Davis is open for all school districts to adopt.