This Free Program Teaches Underprivileged Girls About Computer Science

by Robyn Smith

Every day, thousands of people come to the American Museum of Natural History to learn about science. They explore the exhibits that were painstakingly curated by scientists and broken down by data visualists to spread a love of science.


But the museum goes beyond the public space to spread knowledge. BridgeUp: STEM, a 120-hour program that teaches underprivileged girls about computer science and programming, is about a month underway. During the first week, the students learned python. Since then, they’ve moved on to SQL and other programming languages. 


Sponsored in 2014 by the Helen Gurley Brown Fund to create opportunities for women that help bridge the gender gap in computer science-related fields, the program is designed to teach computer science to “nerdy girls” in a safe, test-free environment where they can explore and ask questions.


Teaching the girls are five Helen Fellows who’ve been hand-selected by the museum. They’ve either studied computer science in college or learned it for the program, and they divide their time between education and research, working in different aspects of the museum that they specialize in.


Ace is a 14-year-old girl who was born in Dubai. She moved to her current home, Jamaica, Queens, when she was in second grade. On my visit in mid-July, she’s one of a small handful of students in the room wearing a hijab, or headscarf. On July 14, Ace is learning python. Not the snake, the computer programming language.


13951027 10208426493254392 2034679014 oNatalia Rodriguez, a Helen Fellow, with Aisha, a 14-year-old Brown Scholar. 

She’s one of about 30 girls who are this summer’s batch of Brown Scholars at the museum. Because Ace, whose real name is Aisha, was absent yesterday, one of the Helen Scholars, Natalia Rodriguez, is working with her one-on-one to help her catch up.


“Sometimes it does get tough overall,” Aisha says. “When you reach a conclusion, it’s really exciting to see what you’ve created.”


The way she and Rodriguez interact, it’s as if they’ve known each other for much longer than a week. Rodriguez is amazed at how fast her students pick up the code.


“When I took it [in college], I thought it was hard, and then the girls will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s intuitive,’” says Rodriguez, 23, who lived in Mexico until she was 10 and studied computer science at Southwestern University. She specializes in data visualization, and when she came here two months ago, she worked on a virtual reality tree of life. Since becoming a fellow, Rodriguez has been able to speak at the United Nations Headquarters, and plans on attending more conferences throughout the year-long fellowship.


Before an internship in college at Fast Company, Rodriguez was on her way to becoming a journalist as an English major and computer science minor. After learning how the industry was moving toward datavis, as she casually calls data visualization, she flip-flopped the two.


Looking around the classroom, an outside observer would think of the diversity as fairly indicative of NYC’s multicultural roots; it is, however, intentional.


“We want to broaden the pipeline for young women, for kids from low-income backgrounds, to be able to engage in and succeed in science learning here,” says Ruth Cohen, the museum’s director of the center for lifelong learning and senior director of education strategic initiatives. “The goal is to go as deep as we can with these individual young women to help them think about whether or not this is something they want to pursue as they continue in high school and in college.”


13978322 10208426490374320 2005655172 o 

Cohen knew that the program had attained at least some of that goal when all of the girls from the first cohort were interested in continuing on as research interns, working more closely with the Helen Fellows.


After that, they had to invent a third year, taking the girls to partner companies and colleges like Google and John Hopkins University. Its purpose is for the scholars to get a glimpse of their potential careers in programming.


“I think that it can be isolating still in this day to be a nerdy girl who wants to spend her summer in a science museum,” says Cohen, “so to have the opportunity to be with girls like that is so important because it validates who they are and what they want in learning.”


Like Cohen, the fellows also hope for change in the computer science industry. “Having this community that is standing behind you and growing will eventually disseminate out into changing the culture itself,” says Lillie Schachter, 23, a new fellow whose first day was the Monday before I came to visit. “By widening the type of person that has access to this technology…I think that’s how we can change the world.”


Mali’o Kodis, 24, first fell in love with the museum when she was in seventh grade, after she won an award for her essay on an invasive ginger species in her backyard. In order to become one of the first Helen Scholars, Kodis taught herself Python for six months before applying. She studied geology and evolutionary biology at Brown University.


13978003 10208426494734429 96256007 oMali’o Kodis, 24, one of the first Helen Scholars, observes the class. 

“I taught a web development internship group and at the end I asked them all what they wanted to do,” Kodis says. One of her students who was passionate about social justice and immigration rights said she would use her newfound skills to develop a website that allowed immigrants to share their stories and let their voices be heard by a new audience. “My goal as a part of this program is to bring voices to the table that might not be a part of the conversation…If she goes to college, which she will, she’ll be a first generation college student. Now that she has the tools to make a website, she can use it for her family.”


Though the four fellows I spoke with had more than enough to say about their love of science, they also expressed it visually, like wearing their hearts on their sleeves. When we met that first Thursday, Kodis was wearing gold hoop earrings that had real snake vertebrae. Another fellow, 25-year-old Emily Carlson, was wearing an astronaut shirt from the museum’s space shop: “They kind of fit together well so it forms an overall pattern, so it looks cool from a distance. It is technically a boy’s shirt but gender is over.”


As one of the original fellows, Carlson was able to teach a group of interns, middle school students, and girls in BridgeUp. They went into the “field,” Central Park, to study birds; observing penguins and vultures, and then graphing the results. She taught them all of it from scratch.


How did Carlson discover the fellowship?


“Tumblr,” she says. “I was scrolling through Tumblr. I follow a lot of science blogs along with the standard cute puppies.”


In order to become a Helen Fellow, women who’ve either graduated college or are in their senior year must know computer science and be outstanding in their fields, whether it be data visualization (Rodriguez), education (Schachter), conservation biology (Konis), or astronomy (Carlson). In order to become a Brown Scholar, girls have to have grades that are at least B average, and enough time to really commit to the program. They don’t need a packed resume, and it’s actually preferred that they don’t.


“We’ve countered that entirely and thought more about how we can best serve a person,” Schachter, who studied computer science at Connecticut College, says. “By focusing on girls who are excited and focused—you don’t come in and do this for six weeks if you’re not interested in trying to learn something—but that are maybe not necessarily being challenged so much in school and maybe aren’t necessarily being challenged as much as they could be, that’s where we’re focusing.”

To learn more about the Helen Fellowship, go to the Museum of Natural History’s website, here.

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