Who Runs the World?

Close your eyes and just imagine the following: a line of bananas you can play as a keyboard; a working guitar out of a piece of cardboard; or an animated dance battle between yourself and a character of your creation.

Now imagine the people behind these achievements are young ladies in the 6th to 11th grade. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it… these things really happened this summer thanks to Girl Who Code!

Girls Who Code (GWC) is an international organization that empowers young girls to learn not only how to code but provides the skills, resources, and encouragement needed to enter the typically male-dominated career fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Here in Terrebonne parish, Terrebonne Foundation for Academic Excellence (TFAE) first learned about GWC when local teacher Melissa Williamson submitted a TFAE Innovative Ed-Venture Grant to start her own GWC club at Houma Jr. High. She is a former engineer turned math teacher who is incredibly passionate about inspiring girls to love STEM.

With a sponsorship from Chevron, TFAE funded Melissa’s grant (about $9,000) for a set of chromebooks, GWC shirts, supply kit, books, and miscellaneous items she wanted to start her club at HJH. This began a wonderful partnership with Chevron for TFAE. Because they are committed to STEM education, they loved Melissa’s project and offered TFAE additional dollars to expand GWC in Terrebonne Parish.

Katie Portier, executive director for TFAE, suggested one way to reach multiple girls across the parish was to create and invite them to a summer camp so they could essentially “sample” the idea of GWC and ask to start their own clubs at their schools. Last year, TFAE hosted their first camp with 25 girls, which grew the GWC school clubs in our area from one to about eight.

“I cannot say enough about Chevron’s commitment to STEM education in Terrebonne Parish,” says Katie. “We are so grateful that they continue to put their trust in TFAE to carry out educational programs within our parish. Thus far, Chevron has committed approximately $75,000 to our Girls Who Code initiative in Terrebonne Parish. Because of this, every girl can attend our camp at no cost and we have the technology for them to use. Everything is provided for them.”

The GWC Summer Session is open to Terrebonne Parish girls entering grades 6-11. “Research has shown that girls ‘lose interest’ in STEM around this age group, so we wanted to capture their attention and interest,” shares Katie. “It’s also a great age to teach the ‘extras’ of GWC which include bravery, resilience, hard work, respect, and more.”

The objective of GWC school clubs and camps is to encourage our local girls to learn to code. By learning this skill, girls also learn valuable life skills along the way.

“Coding is hard and frustrating,” explains Kaite. “It requires patience, determination, the ability to overcome obstacles. A popular motto of GWC (and our camp motto) is ‘Brave Not Perfect’, which means that it’s okay to try something new and not be great at it. Often, girls (and women!) will not try something simply because they know they may not succeed at first. One lesson we stress through the clubs and camp is that bravery is so important in all aspects of our life – bravery to try a new skill, bravery to fail, bravery to speak up, bravery to be yourself. It’s amazing to see these girls see their worth and blossom. Their faces when they put together a string of code and it works is something I’ll never get tired of seeing. They are so excited and proud of themselves.”

Traditionally, GWC Summer Session has been held at Fletcher Technical Community College. Local businesses donated breakfast and lunch, each girl had their own Chromebook to use, and campers spent the day learning how to code, practicing skills, listening to local women in STEM careers, and working on individual and group projects. TFAE had plans to grow the 1-week camp to a 2-week camp and offer two levels this year.

However, with the pandemic adjusting how we were able to gather in different phases, TFAE recognized their number one priority was the health of camp participants, teachers, and their families. With this in mind, TFAE felt it was best to offer a 1-week virtual camp this year.

“While virtual comes with a whole list of challenges, we are lucky to have some amazing facilitators that were able to put together an incredibly fun and engaging program,” shares Katie. “We created STEM activity kits (which we hand-delivered to each girl with a socially distanced and fun “car parade”) that included a Makey Makey kit, all supplies needed for a hands-on project, candy, science journal, DIY bracelet kit, “Hidden Figures” book, and more.”

A Makey Makey kit is an innovation tool kit that allows users to make closed and open circuits. With the supplies in their kits, girls could experiment with so many things, but mostly how to control their computers with other objects. For example, one camper, Rozzie Hubbell, learned how to attach her Makey kit to bananas to control piano keys that she coded.

Overall, this year’s camp was certainly different but the girls adapted quickly and enjoyed the experience. A day typically started with a Zoom meeting where the girls would play some type of game then launch into their lesson for the day. The girls would then work independently on their coding and Makey Makey projects, while the Zoom was left open for the next four hours for them to come in and out if they needed help. A lot of the girls stayed in the Zoom while working just for fun. At the beginning of the next day, the camp would have a “show and tell” for those who wanted to show the progress they made the day before.

This summer, lessons included different aspects of coding, how to use the Makey Makey kits, historical women in technology fields, and more. GWC also had two fantastic speakers share their journey as women in STEM.

“One positive outlook of having to do virtual was that we were able to get a very notable speaker to talk to our girls about her journey,” said Katie. “Alyssa Carlson is the youngest NASA trainee, and she happens to be from Baton Rouge! She is training to be a part of a crew that will walk on Mars. As you can imagine, her talk was incredibly interesting as we learned about her journey to become an astronaut. The girls were definitely impressed and in complete awe.”

The campers also heard from Leah Brown, Corporate Affairs Manager at Chevron. Leah was a great speaker for the girls because her career has taken her through many different STEM avenues including chemist and teacher. She offered some great advice for the campers in how to stay on track to reach their goals in life.

While Katie’s main contribution to the camp is to coordinate in the background, securing funding and resources needed, scheduling speakers, and offering support to the facilitators and teachers, she does get to give the introduction to “Brave Not Perfect” where she aims to inspire the girls to “be brave to do hard things, be kind to ourselves along the way, and go out there and conquer whatever they want to.”

The five other camp facilitators all work in the TPSD school system, and each bring something different to the camp. “I cannot say enough about our local teachers,” smiles Katie. “They are shaping our next generation of leaders, workers, voters, and community members. They deserve our support, encouragement, and appreciation every day.”

Melissa Williamson is the camp’s “fearless leader”. She now teaches Algebra at H. L. Bourgeois High School. As a former engineer, her knowledge of coding and her perspective in STEM careers is unique.

Jennifer Hopkins will be starting as a geometry teacher at Terrebonne High this year. (She was formerly an 8th grade math teacher at Houma Junior High.) She is the Makey Makey expert! She challenges the girls to try new things with their projects and has all the patience in the world.

Rae Bangs is a special ed teacher at Houma Junior High. She coordinated the “brain breaks” and themed days, showing up every day (virtually) in a costume. Rae never coded before helping with the camp, so she shows the girls her progress as she learns alongside them.

Shannon Marcel is a geometry teacher at HL Bourgeois. Shannon keeps everyone on track and offers such great encouragement when things get tough for the girls. She is great at helping the girls get their “break through” when facing a problem with their code.

Ashley Jefferson is a guidance counselor at Terrebonne High. After Katie reached out to Ashley in the first year looking for nominations for the camp, she immediately wanted to volunteer. Ashley  is an amazing role model.

“We all have different personalities which I think is great, because the girls see us interact with kindness and respect for one another,” explains Katie. “I think we can all say we as adults also walk away from the camp inspired, recharged, and ready to take on the world.”

TFAE is celebrating their 30th anniversary this school year. Since their inception, TFAE’s mission has been to establish a perpetual source of funding to provide additional financial resources to foster academic excellence in public education. They have funded more than $1.3 million dollars in grants to local public school teachers for supplies, technology, and innovative projects in the classroom. Just last school year, TFAE funded more than $100,000 in grant dollars directly to local teachers. In addition, TFAE has funded more than 267,000 books to local children through the Imagination Library.

Over the years TFAE has been able to expand on these programs by helping to create additional educational experiences for students, such as Girls Who Code Summer Session, lending libraries, and more, with the support of the community. They are honored to provide teachers with resources they need to create effective, engaging, innovative, and creative classrooms.

“I think the Girls Who Code program in Terrebonne Parish is a great example of what can happen when one teacher has a great idea. This started as just a small club of 15 girls at a local junior high school and has since grown into much, much more. We now have more than 100 local girls (through the camp and school clubs) who are learning confidence, bravery, technology skills, and much more. They are securing their futures in the ever growing STEM career path.” POV

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