Engineering student award benefits middle school girls

Michelle Grab Kate Miller

Scott Spitzer

Michele Grab, director of Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering program, and freshman Kate Miller, a bioengineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Thanks to Kate Miller, a bioengineering major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, there will be a new computer programming class taught at Penn’s Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (Penn GEMS) summer camp.

Miller was awarded the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s (NCWIT) AspireIT award—which comes with a $5,000 prize—for her project encouraging young women to develop an interest in computer science.

Miller, a freshman from Columbus, Ohio, has known Michele Grab, director of Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering program, which runs Penn GEMS, for three years. The two met during an orientation program when Miller was a junior in high school; Penn was her top choice and she was already interested in engineering outreach.

As a high school senior, Miller developed an afterschool program for middle school girls much in the vein of Penn GEMS. She taught an introductory programming class using a tool called Kodu to young girls in her community. After coming to Penn, Miller and Grab thought it would be a perfect fit for Penn GEMS and the requirements of the NCWIT award.

Kodu

Programming in Kodu involves picking basic actions from menus and combining them to make more complex behaviors. In this case, when the character sees an apple, it moves toward it, and when it bumps into an apple, it eats it and turns a random color. 

Kodu teaches programming principles by enabling users to make their own simple video games. Users can draw 3-D environments and populate them with interactive elements, imbuing them with behaviors via point-and-click menus. By linking and nesting if/then statements—such as “if the car touches a blue ball, then increase speed”—programmers can make all types of games.   

“The girls will be programing a racing game and competing against each other to see who can finish the course faster,” Miller says. “A lot of that will depend on creating the environment, so it’s really very visual.” 

Microsoft, which makes Kodu and develops lesson plans for the same kind of programming instruction, will also donate several tablet computers to be used in the class. The intuitive, visual interface is a natural fit for an introduction to the discipline.

“Kodu relies heavily on logic structures that form the basis for thinking like a programmer,” Miller says, “so it’s a really non-intimidating way to begin thinking logically and sequentially, the way a computer processes data. That’s really helpful when you move to the verbal programming languages where you can’t see everything that’s going to happen and you have to think through it.”

Originally published on April 11, 2013