EXCITE-d about IT

Dancing robots Thunderbot, Roger, and Purple Wurple did fearsome battle at the IBM campus last week as dozens of screaming girls watched, cheering and carrying on. This was just a typical day at the company’s annual Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering (EXITE) weeklong summer camp for preteen girls. There, 36 girls from grades seven and eight from middle schools in Etobicoke, Newmarket, Pickering, and Markham gathered to do fun experiments and activities with rollercoasters, dancing robots, and banana DNA—and hopefully spark an interest in the tech field for the future.

IBM software developer Helen Zhang was an event co-chair this year, but this wasn’t her first experience with EXITE — she helped out at the event in 2002 while she was on an IBM internship. “We need to show girls that there are interesting and cool things that technology can do,” she said. “When they’re entering high school, there’s a variety of subjects for them to choose from, so we want to make them aware of (the science-based ones) and show them that it’s not just as geeky guys.”

Former camper Michelle Wong returned to the camp after attending herself back in 2002. She was so inspired that she entered the science stream and is now a first-year engineering student at the University of Toronto. “Back in Grade 8, I had never even heard of engineering before.” She said that her classes are only about 20 per cent female.

According to Grade 7 student Sunaina D’souza, “Most people think math and science is all about giant machines and building these giant things and doing math, but now that I’ve studied robots, it’s really grabbed my attention.”

The first activity includes using a computer program to put together a virtual rollercoaster, which explores programming and physics, and teaches them engineering terms. This is followed by an expedition to Canada’s Wonderland; there, the girls use accelerometers to track g-force and centrifugal force on the different rides.

The next involved building a light-sensor-equipped Lego robot and programming it to “dance” so that it could compete in the battle royale entitled, “So You Think Your Robot Can Dance.” Participants had to program their robots to do a line-dance, a pirouette, and a figure-eight. Mackenzie Davidson, a Grade 6 student, said that trying to make her team’s robot dance was tougher than she expected. “There’s all these specific details, and you’d think it’d be easy, but it’s hard,” she laughed.

Most of the girls were very engaged with the project and enjoying themselves (the large amount of sugary snacks couldn’t have hurt). D’souza loved the challenge of getting the robot to dance correctly. “If something didn’t work, we fixed it, and after we fixed it, it worked. I found that really rewarding,” she said.

Other activities included using the freeware Scratch application to program graphics to do things like eat, or make a sound. Becoming aware of the different fun things that can be done with technology and science is important, said Grade 8 student Sukhpreet Sekhan. “The (balance of the sexes) in the sciences is kinda equal now, but it depends — if it’s something that they don’t know about, they can judge it,” she said. While math and science are her favourite subjects already, Sekhan said that the camp had inspired her to look into taking some specific technology courses.

Ongoing learning and mentorship is important, too. Girls are assigned an “e-mentor” that they stay in touch with for the next year about career path issues and all things tech. “That way, they can find out about these fun women working in IT and see that they’re not just chained to a computer all day — they play sports, they play music, and everything else,” said Zhang.

The week’s activities definitely found a few converts. D’souza said that she’s now thinking about taking a few science and technology courses and applying the knowledge to the types of “cool” projects she saw at the camp. She said, “You can use it for very different things.”

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