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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Girls and Gadgets

Abbey Burnett (Left) and Erica Lindsey (Right) pose with robots they presented to their families at Kulshan Middle School April 1, 2016. // Photo by Connor Jalbert
Abbey Burnett (Left) and Erica Lindsey (Right) pose with robots they presented to their families at Kulshan Middle School April 1, 2016. // Photo by Connor Jalbert

Western students, middle school girls and parents mingled in the main auditorium of Kulshan Middle School on Friday, April 1, for the final event of the school’s Creators and Innovators Club along with Western volunteers.

Among them, displayed on tables or the floor, the final projects weren’t paintings or knitwear. Instead, parents admired dozens of robots, including “battle bots” and vending machines.

Every Friday, 28 students and alumnae from Western’s Association for Women in Computing volunteer to work with the girls at Kulshan Middle School.

The club’s building materials included electronic building blocks called LittleBits and building platforms called Makeblock Arduinos.

“I think it’s a great program to help our daughters learn more about math, technology and science and how that can be applied out in the world after school.”

Abbey Burnett’s father, Mischa Burnett said.

“Because we’ve been going for two years, we’ve been able to see some results, like there are more girls signed up for applied physics in high school,” co-facilitator Syd Cole said. “We haven’t been around long enough to see long-term effects, but short-term, that’s pretty exciting.”

Many current Western students are involved in the club, including Gracie Ermi, volunteer coordinator for the Association of Women in Computing. Ermi plans to graduate this quarter with a degree in computer science before going on to the computer science master’s program.

“Even just seeing a computer science major who’s a female, I think, is just another path they can envision themselves going down,” Ermi said.

Ermi also believes the volunteers benefit from the experience.

“Being involved with something outside of just your classes encourages you to stay in the department and keep taking more [computer science] classes, because you see that you can make a difference,” she said.

With the assistance of the Association of Women in Computing, the students at Kulshan Middle School completed over 80 robots and presented them in a final showcase April 1, 2016. // Photo by Connor Jalbert
With the assistance of the Association of Women in Computing, the students at Kulshan Middle School completed over 80 robots and presented them in a final showcase April 1, 2016. // Photo by Connor Jalbert

After attendees viewed the projects, Cole introduced guest speakers Julia Aiken, a snowboarding industrial engineer, and Mary Elliott Keane, founder of the Bellingham Foundry.

Paul Anshus, father of one of the club members, appreciates the club’s efforts to open technical and engineering careers to more women.

“I think it’s fantastic that young girls get a chance to really express themselves doing technology and learning about robotics,” Paul Anshus said.

Paul Anshus’ daughter, Ashley Anshus, presented a robotic koi fish on wheels, built to detect a line of tape and follow its course. She said the programming was difficult but one of her favorite parts of the club. She appreciated the involvement of the Western volunteers, saying they helped students with anything they were confused about.

Ashley Anshus said she is not finished with robotics.

“I want to design rockets when I grow up,” she said.

Club member Abbey Burnett built a mobile “animal bot” with a toy elephant trunk, a paper giraffe tongue and a trailer. “It’s an Arduino robot with LittleBits,” she said. She was having trouble fitting all the necessary parts until a Western volunteer made a suggestion.

“It was kind of hard to get all the wires on it, but we made a trailer that holds all of them,” she said.

“I think it’s a great program to help our daughters learn more about math, technology and science and how that can be applied out in the world after school,” Abbey Burnett’s father, Mischa Burnett said.

The Creators and Innovators Club has always been popular, Cole said. Sixty girls signed up at the club’s initiation last year. This year there were over 70 — more than a fifth of all the girls at Kulshan.

Cole, a 1998 Western alumna, has been a professional software developer for 20 years.

“I’ve had a lot of my own struggles to overcome as a woman in computer science,” Cole said.

She hopes to see change in the STEM fields ­­— science, technology, engineering and math. There were very few women in computer science when she went to college, Cole said.

“I thought that by now, by the time my kids were going through middle school and high school, it would be different, but it wasn’t different,” Cole said.

Since receiving a grant two years ago, the club continues to encourage young girls to explore their scientific side and experiment with robotics.

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