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Eureka! workshop introduces girls to computer science

Between July 8th and 15th, the School of Computer Science hosted ten rising 8th graders for a five-day workshop as part of the Girls Inc. of Holyoke Eureka! program. Eureka! is a national Girls Inc. initiative that brings girls onto college and university campuses for an intensive summer program that combines hands-on workshops across all STEM fields with sessions focused personal development and health and wellness. The Holyoke Eureka! program launched in summer 2013 on the UMass Amherst campus in collaboration with the College of Natural Sciences.

In 2013, the School contributed space and staff support to the Eureka! program. The School continued to provide a home for Eureka! on campus this year while launching its first educational contribution to the program, a workshop titled An Introduction to Creative Computing with Scratch. The workshop was coordinated by Assistant Professor Benjamin Marlin and provided a five-day

            Photo Credit: UMass Amherst Media Relations

     Photo Credit: Girls Inc. of Holyoke


introduction to computer science through creative, hands-on programming activities using MIT's popular programming language Scratch. Scratch programs are created by dragging and dropping instructions that are visually represented as interlocking blocks. "Scratch is a great environment for teaching introductory programming concepts," says Marlin. "None of the girls had prior experience with Scratch, but we were able to introduce fundamental object oriented programming and control flow concepts, andhave the girls use these ideas to program animations by the end of the first two-hour session."

The remaining workshop sessions focused on designing simple games using mouse and keyboard interaction, incorporating input from external Scratch sensor boards, and building and programming LEGO NXT robots. By the end of the workshop, the girls were using Scratch to program mobile NXT robots to respond to sound, touch and ultrasonic sensor inputs. "I just love seeing these girls fired up about Scratch and robotics and to build their confidence in these areas in such amazing ways," says Leah Uberseder of Girls Inc.

         Photo Credit: UMass Amherst Media Relations

According to Marlin, the volunteers who participated in the workshop and the staff that helped to coordinate materials and facilities were key to the workshop's success. Prof. Arjun Guha, and Michael Lanighan, a PhD student in the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, led workshop sessions along with Marlin. Lanighan also designed the activities for the robotics sessions. An additional eight graduate student volunteers from across the School including Roy Adams (MLDS), Rick Freedman (RBR), Katerina Marazopoulou (KDL), Pinar Ozisik (Center for Forensics), Kate Silverstein (IESL), Emma Strubell (IESL), Kevin Winner (MLDS) and Kyle Wray (RBR) worked with the girls one-to-one during hands-on programming sessions. "Our grad students did a fantastic job working with the girls and guiding them through the workshop activities," Marlin says.  "There's no way the workshop would have run as smoothly without their help."

The workshop was also supported by staff from Girls Inc., the Commonwealth Alliance for IT Education (CAITE), and the Computer Science Computing Facilities. The LEGO NXT robotics kits and laptops used in the workshop were provided by Girls Inc. and CAITE, respectively. The School provided funding for the Scratch sensor boards. The boards were designed by Marlin and Addison Mayberry, a PhD student in the Sensors Research Group, who also coordinated the assembly of the boards.

"Putting the materials and content together for the workshop and running it for the first time was a tremendous collaborative effort," Marlin says. "Everyone is very happy with the outcome this year. We're looking forward to working with Girls Inc. and continuing to contribute to Eureka! as the program goes forward."