Nadaijah Gillard, 10, of Peshine Avenue Elementary School, in Newark, demonstrated how she could use a computer to twirl her character, a girl in a pink dress, around a magician. She confidently answered bystanders’ questions by clicking other buttons, changing the girl’s dress and having the girl converse or jump over the magician in question.
Gillard is one of 18 fourth- and fifth-grade girls who participated in a program sponsored by Samsung Electronics that introduced these girls to the basics of event-driven programming and electrical engineering.
The girls demonstrated many of their creations to Samsung executives, who were on hand on Dec. 5 to deliver a $50,000 grant to Peshine Avenue Elementary for buying technology needed by the school. They were also honored by U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who made some remarks.
Ginger Mullens, the computer literacy teacher, gave the girls two-hour lessons twice a week, and then left them to work on their own projects. “What we learn is how to problem solve,” said Mullens, who is devoted to science, technology, engineering and math, not only as a foundation for careers, but for life as a whole.
Mullen noted how this one small program is a part of a larger effort to interest girls in science and engineering—for instance, by teaching them the stories of female scientists in history who made significant contributions to their fields.
The children roared when the Samsung grant was announced, as if every one of them had been given $50,000 to spend at Disney World.
This is a pilot program sponsored by Samsung’s emPOWER Tomorrow, which addresses the large gender gap in STEM fields and works in partnership with Discovery Education to develop educational programs for children that introduce them to concepts in science and technology.
“It’s about engaging kids at the right time, so they can visualize themselves in STEM careers,” said Ann Wu, director of Samsung Electronics America. This program, which had been modeled earlier this year at the Miller Street School, in Newark, is an offshoot of Solve For Tomorrow, a community-based learning initiative for kids in middle and high school. But Samsung was interested in working with younger children.
“All too often, at an early age, science isn’t fun or cool,” said Dr. David Steel, executive vice president at Samsung. “If you can get them excited early, you can transform their interest in learning.”
Senator and former Newark mayor Cory Booker, a longtime champion of Newark public schools, briefly addressed the group.
“STEM programs are critically important to the future of country,” he said. Booker then rattled off statistics about the lack of females — and minority females in particular — in science and technology careers.
Using Steel’s Samsung smart watch as an affirmation of his point, Booker explained how the work the students at Peshine Avenue Elementary were doing could impact the innovations of the future. “That watch is the result of thousands of hours of work, thousands of hours of people putting something together,” he said, citing machinists working on metal as just one example of the work that was instrumental in the manufacture of the watch.
“This is science in action,” said Steel, showing off the square on his wrist, which can take pictures, record audio and video, and notify the user of incoming emails.
Each of the 18 girls who participated in the afterschool program received a certificate and shook hands with Senator Booker.
One of the projects the children worked on, Lilypad, was created by Leah Buechley, a computer scientist who is also a designer, artist and engineer. Lilypad is a set of “sewable” electronic pieces. Users can stitch patches using conductive thread and a small programmable computer, an Arduino, to make interactive toys.
With few women in engineering, Mullens, along with supporters like Peshine Principal Chaleeta Barnes and Assistant Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Peter G. Turnamian, sees the program as a way to expose the young girls of Newark to a new world, in the hope that some of them will go into STEM fields as adults.
Mullens pitched the class as a way to learn how to make video games. “Do you want to learn how to make characters move? Put music in the background?”
Using a free MIT program called Scratch, the girls were able to take characters, called “sprites,” and tell them to move left or right, spin in a circle, or wave their arms, in addition to other customizations like adding sounds. The girls created a “dance party” at which characters could speak and act out their own stories.
The future of STEM education at Peshine will largely be student-driven, said Principal Barnes. Administrators will take their lead from what the children want to do.
Peshine Elementary School already has technology integrated throughout the curriculum — from smart boards and tablets to interactive math and science activities — but this program gave students and teachers the opportunity to see technology applied to a concrete, focused project. “The students are totally committed,” said Barnes. “It’s an awesome experience and opportunity.”