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CAITE holds robotics workshop for middle school girls

Nearly 40 middle school students gathered at the School of Computer Science during spring 2014 to build and program robots in an all-girl team environment. The event, Girls Connect, introduced girls to LEGO Mindstorms robot building and programming and was organized by the Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology Education (CAITE) and Expanding Computing Education Pathways (ECEP), two NSF-sponsored programs based in the School that aim to broaden participation in computing.

Girls Connect bridges programming to real world issues for students. The one-day workshop guides the girls to work in teams while building and programing robots; the teams then complete challenges using the playing fields developed for FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competitions. The girls who participated said they found increased confidence in their ability to program and solve problems, and they discovered that working with robots can be fun and creative.

Between 2010 and 2014, CAITE has hosted 13 Girls Connect workshops to reach nearly 300 girls. At least six new FLL teams have spun out of the workshops, giving those students increased experience with robotics at the middle-school level and increasing the gender balance in FIRST programs. Co-sponsors of the workshops include LEGO Education, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Girls Incorporated of Holyoke, and the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC).

This year, Girl Scout troops, classroom teams, and parent-led groups from Amherst, Springfield, West Springfield and surrounding communities participated in the March event. A second workshop in early May at the MGHPCC included 40 students from Holyoke, Springfield, and other communities in the surrounding area. In August, educators and parents attended a Coaches Connect workshop to have their own hands-on practice with robots and to get tips on coaching an FLL team. This workshop joins six other professional development workshops on computing education for teachers that will be held across Massachusetts with the support of the ECEP alliance.