Penn sophomore introduces tech-savvy middle school girls to programming

Penn GEMS

Felice Macera

Using funding from her AspireIT prize, sophomore Kate Miller (left) taught a session on programming at the Penn GEMS summer camp. Her lesson on programming was a first for Penn GEMS, which is now in its sixth year.

Last week, 56 middle school-age girls flocked to Penn to take their computer savvy to the next level by learning to program.

It wasn’t long ago that their instructor, Kate Miller, was in their shoes.

Miller, a rising sophomore who is majoring in bioengineering, took a liking to science at an early age. As a high school student in Columbus, Ohio, she developed an afterschool introduction to programming class for middle school girls.

Using funding from her AspireIT prize—an award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) that included a $5,000 grant—Miller was able to bring a similar program to the University as part of the Penn Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (Penn GEMS) summer camp. Her session on programming was a first for Penn GEMS, which is now in its sixth year.

“I hoped to convey that technology is fun, it requires creativity, and that they don’t need to lock themselves away in a dark computer lab to learn it,” Miller says. “I think they grasped those concepts immediately and set about trying to learn everything they could.”

As part of Miller’s NCWIT award, Microsoft donated tablet computers equipped with Kodu, a tool that teaches programming principles by enabling users to create simple video games.

To explain to the girls how the program worked, Miller and her teaching partner, Emma Coltoff, a rising freshman at Tufts University and fellow NCWIT award-winner, staged a real-life classroom obstacle course.

GEMS Penn

Felice Macera

Miller says the middle school-age girls in the camp were able to grasp many “incredibly complex functions” after just a few hours of work.

“[We] hid apples around the room, and a girl, acting as the ‘Kodu,’ had to follow instructions to find the apples and avoid certain obstacles,” Miller says. In using the Kodu tool on the tablets, she says the girls were able to grasp many “incredibly complex functions” such as “if-then clauses” after just a few hours of work.

“It was so much fun to see them completely capable of turning what they imagined into interactive games—making it real. It’s one of the most important issues in modern education,” Miller says.

Michele Grab, director of Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering program, which organizes Penn GEMS, says there is a significant drop-off in interest in science among 13- to 15-year-old girls. Through camps like Penn GEMS and sessions such as Miller’s, she hopes to keep young girls enthusiastic about science and math.

“We want girls to stay excited about it, and as they go off into high school and have some choices in their curriculum, we want them to continue to take those math and science courses,” Grab says.

Originally published on August 8, 2013