‘Hidden Figures’ no more

BY TARA SMITH

A dozen pairs of eyes lit up as Stesi Shanja clamped a piece of pencil lead with two alligator clips, placed a Mason jar over the top and closed the circuit by attaching the clips to eight D batteries. The Mason jar filled with smoke and the pencil lead began to glow, creating a light bulb.

Shanja explained how electrons from the battery flow through the alligator clips and pencil lead — graphite — to create a closed circuit. That energy flow is what caused light to appear in a dark room at the Boys and Girls Club of the Bellport Area last Friday for Tech Girls Rock, a hands-on workshop meant to cultivate interest in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

According to BGC Bellport program director Sherika Adams, nearly 125 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 signed up for the event and came from as near as Bellport and as far as West Babylon. “We’ve been increasing interest in STEM fields because that’s where the money is,” Adams explained. “But it’s also fun to expose the girls to different things.”

Since 2011, CA Technologies has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to deliver hands-on technology workshops for tween and teen girls to spark their interest in STEM careers. Though BGC Bellport has their own STEM programs, they were able to host last week’s workshop through competitive grant funding. The girls were able to attend gratis, thanks to a $25,000 grant from CA Technologies. The Bellport club location was one of five nationwide to be selected to host Tech Girls Rock this year, explained BGC Bellport executive director Sybil Mimy Johnson. “This is our first event of this scale,” she noted. “And our next focus is ‘tech guys rock.’ We can’t forget the boys in STEM,” Johnson added, explaining that the focus is to push diversity in all STEM fields. “Kids from certain school districts are not always pushed to go into these fields,” she noted, hoping that events like this would help students embrace her motto: Imagine the possibilities.

Many of the girls had been looking forward to the event after a field trip to see “Hidden Figures” earlier last month. The amazing untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson has inspired thousands since debuting in December. Johnson said that she plans on screening the film at the club sometime this month in honor of Women’s History Month, but also so that more girls have the opportunity to see the powerful story. “I want ladies to see that diversity in STEM fields does exist. Maybe then, the figures won’t be so hidden,” Johnson said.

Last Friday’s event also provided girls the opportunity to meet with real women who do work in STEM. In between hands-on workshops, girls rotated through one classroom that was home to a career exploration panel, where technology professionals shared their own experiences. Girls asked questions and learned about key IT trends and topics. Another portion of the workshops was part intellectual and part physical: the STEM scavenger hunt.

The girls also participated in hands-on coding activities, including a computer program called SCRATCH and also a more metaphorical approach: charm bracelets.

During the light bulb experiment, many of the girls had their phones at the ready, waiting to capture the first glow of pencil lead on Snapchat or social media. “How does Snapchat work?” Shanja asked the girls. Responses included “technology” and “computers.” But behind all of that, she explained, is a series of intricate codes — “on and off” switches for every button pushed. Binary code helps represent messages and store information using two symbols: zero and one. BGC Bellport youth development professional Naomi McDuffie helped explain binary code by drawing a comparison to Morse code — flipping the lights rang a bell for the girls.

She then handed out string and colorful beads for an activity that would connect binary code with bracelet making. Using a binary decoder key to show how computers represent letters, the girls were asked to write their name or initials on a piece of paper and then translate each letter into binary code, which requires eight symbols per letter. After becoming more familiar with how their names looked in binary form, they picked two colors to represent zero and one and began crafting their bracelets.

“It’s a message only you can understand,” Shanja told the girls. And the bracelets were a memento they could take with them to remember the day.

“In the morning, some of the girls are sort of uninterested or even bored,” said Lisa Brighton, who works for CA Tech’s corporate social responsibility program, CA Together. “But by the end of the day, they have turned around and are having fun. Their eyes have been opened to new opportunities,” she said. Brighton’s favorite part of the workshops is seeing girls discover that they are intrinsically good at many of the activities and showing them how that can translate professionally. Brighton added that many tech companies do seek to hire women and people of color, but often find that there aren’t many coming into the workforce. “Most of the field is made up of white guys,” she joked. “And we want to change that. Not only do we want to bolster women in STEM fields but help other minorities reach their full potential,” she said. “I tell each child I work with to be brave and try something new. Most of the time, they don’t know how good they are.”

Photo Caption 1: Delicia, 10, perfects the lightbulb experiment.
Photo by Tara Smith

 

 

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