Byte-Sized: What we learned when we started a STEM outreach program for middle school girls
Guest post by Myra Cheng, SAILORS ‘15
AI4ALL Editor’s note: Meet Myra Cheng, a 2015 SAILORS alumna who, along with SAILORS alumnae Anika Rawat and Tara Bhatia, started Byte-Sized. Byte-Sized introduces middle school girls from under-resourced communities to computer programming through a multi-day camp. Below, Myra brings to life the process of setting up and running the program and shares what she learned.
Byte-Sized is an organization that focuses on exposing middle school girls to computer science using an original, intensive crash-course curriculum. Our pilot event offered exposure to different aspects of computer science in a comprehensive two-day workshop. It challenged the participants with diverse, creative projects that highlighted the intersection of computer science with other subjects like language, art, and design.
Inspired by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab Outreach Summer program (SAILORS), which I attended with my Byte-Sized co-founders Anika Rawat and Tara Bhatia, we wanted to put our own twist on the amazing experience of being exposed to technical material and the social impact of computing. We drew from our personal experiences of feeling intimidated and perplexed at a young age and resolved to give the girls early exposure in a way that would encourage them to become interested in further pursuit of the subject.
The goal of Byte-Sized is to empower and equip the next generation of female engineers and computer scientists with the skills needed in order to mitigate the gender gap in technology. We believe that middle school outreach programs are critical in reaching this goal, as studies have shown that girls at this particular age are especially susceptible to being discouraged by unappealing stereotypes and lack of role models. Working with middle schoolers also allows us to have an early impact on students’ self-perception, while still covering complex material that might be too difficult for younger students to grasp.
Our first workshop was held on a sunny November weekend at the KIPP Heritage Academy, a school focused on educating low-income, underprivileged students in San Jose, California.
Throughout the course of the 2-day program, we covered topics ranging from the importance of coding and computer science, to website design with HTML, to Python programming, to artificial intelligence. We used interactive activities and projects to keep students engaged and reinforce what we were teaching them in our lectures. Students completed projects like building their own website, coding a simple word-scrambling game from the bottom up in Python, and brainstorming about how AI can be used in linguistics.
We also made time to give students insight into real people’s experience in STEM. For me, one of the most valuable parts of attending SAILORS was having the opportunity to meet role models in the field. When professors from local universities spoke to us about their work and discussed their personal lives over breakfast, I could understand their career paths and the motivation behind their work on a much deeper level. For Byte-Sized, we adapted this format to be more immediately useful to our middle school students; instead of inviting professors to speak as role models, we asked other SAILORS alumnae who had done cool things in their high school careers to speak to our girls. This allowed us to cover topics like the gender gap in STEM fields with our students.
We had a memorable finish to our two days, unpacking six brand-new Ollie robots for our final hands-on experience. The students were split into small groups, and they worked together to first control the Ollies manually, then gradually progress into programming a sequence of moves for the Ollies to then reproduce.
After many trial-and-error rounds of programming, the robot was able to follow the correct logical flow of commands to stay on the path, and the students celebrated and high-fived each other as the robot finally crossed the “finish line” of tape. By the time the parents arrived to pick them up, many groups were confidently guiding their robots around the most complex maze, the robot whirring around every corner and angle of masking tape to the delight of the onlooking girls.
After the last participants left with certificates in their hands and smiles on their faces, the program leaders stayed behind to reflect.
The program was as much an educational experience for the three of us as it was for the students. Through the process, we learned how to create a full-fledged program starting with nothing but a shared vision and eagerness to innovate. We used the unique qualities that each program leader brought to the table, from event planning experience to computer science skills, ultimately relying on perseverance and dedication to overcome setbacks. We also benefitted from the support of the NCWIT AspireIT program in the form of $1500 in funding.
We meticulously planned every detail, from the curriculum to the venue to the specific robot model to the logo design on the laptop stickers. We learned as we planned — for example, designing the program taught us how to distill important concepts into an approachable format. Our learning continued right through to the end of the program; we made sure to get feedback from program participants so we can learn from this first experience and make future Byte-Sized events even better. Our post-workshop survey results were extremely promising for what the future holds: 100% “would recommend to their friends,” and over 90% “are more likely to attend a technology course or be interested in a career in technology after attending this event.”
Seeing the girls’ faces light up after learning a new concept or finishing a project made all of our hard work worth it. Now that we have laid out the framework, we are so excited to see how our program expands to inspire more young students and bring out their potential. We’re also excited to share our learnings with other high schoolers who are interested in running outreach programs, through avenues like the she++ #include Summit, where we were recently invited to present about our initiative.
Myra Cheng is a junior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, CA and 2015 SAILORS alumna. Her exploration in computer science began with teaching herself HTML/CSS in 6th grade to design blogs for her friends. SAILORS enabled her to fully realize her passion for this field, which inspired the Byte-Sized organization. She has been recognized as National Honorable Mention from NCWIT and finalist in the international Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. When she is not learning more about computing, she is probably delving deeper into neuroscience, participating in Future Business Leaders of America as a national officer, or spending time with her younger sister.