Camp Held at CNR Encourages Girls to Explore STEM Fields
08/08/2014 

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A week-long camp held at The College of New Rochelle has helped girls become more confident in exploring often male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The SmarTech Coding Camp for Girls, organized by Girls Inc. of Westchester County, ran from August 4 to 8. Nineteen upcoming 7th-grade girls participated in this year's camp, a sort of test run for what is intended to be a more intensive, month-long program called Eureka starting next summer.

Camp director Tara Penny said the camp is part of a long-term push by the national Girls Inc. organization to bring girls into STEM fields. "We chose coding because women are desperately under-represented in coding," Penny said. Women make up 30 percent of coders, she said, while women of color make up anywhere between 2 and 4 percent.

"We want to encourage self-esteem, leadership, self-confidence," Penny said.

Most of the girls did not have experience with coding going into camp, but that quickly changed under the tutelage of Tatiana Mangram, the camp's lead facilitator and counselor, who instructed them in the basics of programming and web development.

Campers started with binary code, learning how to spell out their initials in ones and zeros. Then they learned about algorithms, with groups coming up with a set of instructions for creating an image that other campers could follow to re-create the image. The girls also learned basic JavaScript, CSS, and HTML -- common elements of web pages -- and tried their hand at building a mobile application in the Objective-C language.

Mangam said campers showed a lot of improvement with each day. "Some girls were hesitant, but with just a little encouragement, the possibilities are endless."

The camp is about more than just coding. The girls met speakers from IBM, which created the curriculum, and Verizon, and one talk featured Cristina Avila of PepsiCo, who gave a look at the science behind the company's numerous products and encouraged them to pursue careers like hers. "Any of you can have the job I have," she said.

Campers also met leaders from the College, including President Judith Huntington and Vice President for Student Services Elaine T. White. "It's great to see women in these leadership roles at the school," said Michaela Rahimi, advancement coordinator at Girls Inc. "The campus is great."

The students also took advantage of the Wellness Center, where each morning began with a swim. It's another new experience for many of girls. "It wakes them up," Penny said. But it's also a parallel to the objectives of the camp.

Some might be afraid of the water, or they might feel vulnerable with their changing bodies, "but they're supporting each other in taking risks, being bold and trying something," Penny said. "It carries through the day."

(Photo: Cristina Avila speaks about the science that goes into food products.)