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Author's profile photo Milja Gillespie

SAP and University of Waterloo Celebrate 5 years of GIRLsmarts4Tech

Over the last 5 years, SAP and the University of Waterloo have collaborated to run eight GIRLsmarts4Tech events. I keep coming back to the program because I am continually inspired by these smart grade 6 and 7 girls who are excited to learn about computer programming. These girls are confident, eager to learn and excited about technology.

Over these 5 years, the makeup of the 50+ girls who attend each session has changed. They are coming from further and further outside of Waterloo Region – and every single session they join us with more and more programming experience from other events. This fall nearly every girl previously had exposure to programming in Scratch, a precursor to the MIT App Inventor tool that we use in the class.

The GirlSmarts4Tech program was started by SAP Vancouver and UBC many years ago. It expanded to Waterloo and is a cooperative initiative between SAP Waterloo and the Women in Computer Science program at the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. Our single mission is to empower and inspire young girls to study math and technology. We offer a day-long workshop where girls learn about various aspects of computer science, including Android-based mobile app design and programming, user interfaces, and jobs in computer science.

The SAP team ran this program twice in 2019, offering several sessions throughout the day. Over 50 girls, most of whom attend Waterloo Region schools, enjoyed a busy day filled with several different workshops.” We started coding mobile apps using MIT App Inventor, a Blockly programming language, and built a simple app called “Math Blaster” where the girls figured out why a mobile app wasn’t working and built the code to validate a simple math program. They enjoyed the part where they learned about the aspects of smartphones to display results by making the phone vibrate, playing music, using text to voice or changing screen colours.

My favourite session is the User Research exercise where we talk about how important it is to interview your expected users to build an app based on what they actually want – not necessarily what you think they want. We split the girls into smaller groups and did a Design Thinking exercise where we taught the girls how important it is to design an app based on real user research. We brainstormed what would be important to us if we took a trip to Canada’s Wonderland, a theme park in Toronto. The girls then mocked up screens for a mobile app, coming up with amazing and innovative ideas. They learned that providing a good experience is critical to the success of any app they build and that planning screens for an app is an important first step before they can start coding.  We shared highlights from each team’s paper prototypes, learning that you can generate great ideas when you do user research with a lot of people.

In the afternoon session, the girls used their App Inventor coding skills and lessons learned from user research to build upon a Canada’s Wonderland app. They created a list of attractions at the park, noting the constraints for riders, and mapping the attractions and computing distances distance between the user and the attractions. The girls learned many coding skills supported by the MIT App Inventor platform, including coding lists, creating forms, and much more.

To wrap up the day, we then hosted a session on careers in STEAM fields. We talked about why it matters to have more females in STEAM fields and discussed jobs in technology that are cool and not something to shy away from. The entire team was focused on helping these young women think about possible careers—and to keep the world of possibility open to them with technology learning.

Our overall goal was to spend the day encouraging and inspiring these 12 and 13-year-old girls to explore technology, learn coding and, ultimately, to consider education and careers in technology fields.

If you’d like to join us for the next GirlSmarts4Tech event, please stay tuned to the University of Waterloo Website. If you know any young girls who are eager to learn more, encourage them to take every opportunity to learn both at school and on their own. Get them started by showing them how to code in Scratch or MIT App Inventor, help them seek mentors beyond teachers and parents, and always encourage them to stay curious! Also, be sure to check out Technovation – another amazing program for young girls to become technology entrepreneurs!

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