The trio of girls gather around a motorized robot, strategizing their next steps. They’ve successfully programmed the robot to move, pivot and talk. “When you walk in front of it, it shines a warning light and says ‘back up.’ If you don’t move, it’ll shoot you” with a gumball-size orb, explains 12-year-old Madison Kimrey.
Or at least it was supposed to. But at the moment, the pre-teen programmers are having difficulty getting their robot to work the way they envisioned. Using LEGO Mindstorm kits, the girls — three of 70 summer campers — are getting a week-long crash course in robotics along with how to build a computer, website and mobile app development, video game design and other career possibilities the information technology field has to offer.
“I’d never really done anything with LEGO Mindstorm,” Madison says. “I ended up really liking it” — so much so that she requested a set of her own for her birthday. And with a bit more tinkering, the girls’ robot performs perfectly.
Those kind of light bulb moments are one factor that inspired Dr. Lakshmi Iyer, a UNCG associate professor and director of graduate programs for the Bryan School’s Department of Information Systems and Supply Chain Management, to found the IT is for Girls summer program five years ago. The declining number of women choosing information technology as a career was another.
“There’s been a national trend with a drop in the number of women in computing,” Iyer explains. In the ‘80s and ’90s, 40-45 percent of IT professionals were women. But since the late ‘90s and into the 2000s, that number has dropped to about 18-22 percent.
“We noticed that in the Bryan School in our programs and the same thing in computer science,” Iyer says. “The same thing is happening in businesses. We started noticing there was a pipeline issue.”
She reached out to officials with Guilford County Schools and asked how many girls were enrolled in the district’s computing classes. “It was scary, only 5-6 percent. For me, being a woman in computing, I wanted to see what I could do.”
The camp originally started as an outreach to high school students, but Iyer said older students often arrived with a career path already in mind. Reaching out to middle-school students gave leaders a greater window of opportunity to expose the girls to the IT field. And based on the feedback from parents and campers, organizers hit their mark.
Gwen Brincefield, who enrolled her 12-year-old daughter Aariena in this summer’s camp, said the experience exposed her technophile daughter to a wide variety of computing experiences, a key component found in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. “This year she’s done really well in math,” Brincefield said. “We’re looking forward to her learning more about engineering. She likes science. Hopefully — with the camp and the things they’ve been exposed to — it can go from a like to a passion.”
Iyer said one parent wrote her to say her daughter doesn’t want to take a snack break during camp because she fears she’ll miss something in class. Another camper told Iyer she went home and taught her 7-year-old brother how to use the software to build video games. By the next day, he’d developed seven levels of the game.
“People have a misconception about the computing profession,” Iyer says. “They fear they’ll be called geeks, be stuck in a room doing programming. They have a false perception. We wanted to give the true perception — that it’s a fun discipline. It’s about creativity and innovation.”
Story by Lanita Withers Goins, University Relations
Photography by Chris English, University Relations