The first ever computer program was written in the 1840s by a woman, Ada Lovelace, and that legacy of female programmers continued this week at the University of Houston-Victoria.
UHV’s Texas Women in Computing summer camp gave middle school girls in Victoria a chance to advance their computer science skills this week in a fun, engaging way.
Assistant Professor Amjad Nusayr, who organized the camp, said the goal is to help increase the participation of women in STEM fields like computer science.
The camp was originally co-ed, but over the years organizers saw fewer than 20% of computer science majors were female. The school wanted to try to help change that, Nusayr said, as well as to reach out to the Victoria community about UHV’s work in computer science.
The campers worked with Lego Mindstorms robots, which they built, to learn computing by programming the robots to complete tasks around the room.
On Tuesday, they learned how to program the robots’ color sensors to identify certain colors. Once they reached that step, they were preparing to play a red light, green light type game with the robots, instructor Josh Symonds said.
In earlier years, the camp, which is funded by a grant from the Alcoa Foundation, has worked with Arduinos, which are small, programmable computers about the size of the palm of someone’s hand, Symonds said.
One of the students, 12-year-old Marley Jenkins, said she wanted to go into programming when she got older.
Marley’s great-uncle programmed computers, which is what drew her interest in the subject and gave her a desire to learn more through the camp.
“I wanted to come and see what it was like,” she said.
One of her fellow campers, 12-year-old Daizi Garza, also said she enjoyed the challenge of programming the robots to see color.
Daizi said she liked that the camp was just girls, and that in her experience STEM activities usually have a lot of boys.
“You feel more that you belong there,” she said.
Marley agreed with Daizi, and said she was more comfortable at a camp with other girls.
Later in the camp, the students were able to work on personal projects that the instructors don’t assign, which is a part of the camp’s “beyond the classroom” strategy. The small number of students in the camp means they can work at their own pace, Nusayr said, and have the instructors there to support them, which is different from how schools normally teach computer science.
This teaching method is popular with campers, Nusayr said, and their surveys show the kids are more interested in STEM subjects after the camp than they were before.
UHV had saved some of the project robots that campers had created in past years. One student built a robot programmed to play a cup-and-ball shuffling game, and another was able to lay out a path of dominos in a programmed sequence.
A third was built like a tank, and could even shoot little balls by dropping them between two spinning tires.
On Tuesday, cousins Jaslyn and Aleyah Dean were working on troubleshooting their four-color program, which works by placing coding blocks together on a computer interface, and then downloading that program onto the Lego robots’ computers.
They said both of their favorite parts of the camp so far was building the robots.
“It looks cool how they’re able to make robots and control them,” Jaslyn said.