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Laramie Elementary, Middle School Students Participate in UW’s COWGIRLS in STEM Camp

August 10, 2022
two girls at a table looking at impressions in bread slices
COWGIRLS in STEM campers Jovie (left) and Addy observe impressions made in the bread slices of their “rock” sandwiches they created using various types of candy as filler. The geology activity was one of three on the subject in which students participated on the last day of camp at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Laramie. COWGIRLS in STEM aims to revolutionize how youth experience computing and STEM by facilitating interactive learning in female-led environments and bridging the STEM gap through relationships. The multifaceted strategy consists of teaching computational thinking, computer programming and robotics. (UW Photo)

A number of elementary and middle school students built computer games using Scratch programming, worked with robots and learned Earth’s geology by completing a time grid and making candy-filled sandwiches to understand how rock layers compress.

This was all part of a COWGIRLS in STEM (Computational Outreach for Wyoming Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) camp -- created by a University of Wyoming student -- that took place Aug. 1-4 at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Laramie. Upper elementary students met in the morning, while middle school students gathered for the afternoon sessions. Most of the campers were from Laramie.

COWGIRLS in STEM is an innovative computer science experience for youth in after-school programs across the state of Wyoming. The program aims to revolutionize how youth experience computing and STEM by facilitating interactive learning in female-led environments and bridging the STEM gap through relationships. The multifaceted strategy consists of teaching computational thinking, computer programming and robotics.

“Interwoven with these activities, I strive to instill a mindset of confidence by building connections between female computer scientists and interactively exploring that STEM is fun and computer science can lay the foundation for pursuing passions in any area,” says Ashleigh Pilkerton, of Albany, Ore., and the founder of COWGIRLS in STEM. “Each camp has two to four undergraduate or graduate students who are serving as near-peer mentors for camp. In addition to providing computing and STEM activities to youth, the near-peer mentors also are provided opportunities to teach basic computational concepts and coding and provided professional development opportunities.”

Pilkerton is a UW Ph.D. student in the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the Department of Zoology and Physiology. She also is the recipient of an inaugural graduate research assistantship through the UW School of Computing.

During the first three days of the camp, students participated in various computer activities. These included programming a “robot” to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; exploring iterative programming basics with “hula hoop loops”; and creating binary bracelets through binary coding. Students learned to code with block programming in Microsoft MakeCode for micro:bit and Scratch.

After learning about computational thinking and computer science basics, the campers were encouraged to create their own programs or applications.

“It was incredible to see how quickly they mastered block code and the breadth of creativity,” Pilkerton says.

On the final day of camp, students focused on geology projects.

First, the middle school students broke into two groups. Using colored informational cards with geological events in history -- including Devils Tower (40 million years ago) and Yellowstone National Park (17 million years ago) -- each team worked to place the cards in a proper historical order while using a string timeline with colored beads for clues.  

Both teams were accurate on most counts. They knew single-celled creatures came before the Triceratops and fish appeared in the oceans before sharks. However, the students did get tripped up on a few chronological events. The students were surprised to learn that trees actually grew before grass and that the first mammals appeared before the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Gabe, one boy who attended the camp, was amazed to learn that the land where Wyoming now sits was once located on the West Coast.

“I did not know that Wyoming was once in the inland sea,” he said.

Carly, another camper, added, “I was surprised that trees were the first plants.”

Sara McCullough, a UW graduate student majoring in geology from Powell and one of the camp’s near-peer mentors, showed the students a collection of fossil samples, including dinosaur bones, a belemnite or squid point, trilobites, coal, amber and petrified wood.

The show-and-tell segment served as a precursor to campers creating fossil layers by piling gummy bears, gummy worms and gummy fish between two slices of bread. The students wrapped their fossil sandwiches in plastic wrap and then sat on them for a certain amount of time.

four people looking at index cards spread out on a table
Students at the COWGIRLS in STEM camp organize their geology timeline while Jenna Goodrich, a UW senior from Cheyenne majoring in computer science and one of the camp’s near-peer mentors, supervises the activity. Using colored informational cards with geological events in history, each team worked to place the cards in a proper historical order while using a string timeline with colored beads for clues. (UW Photo)

“The deeper something gets buried, the warmer it gets,” McCullough said as she walked around the room observing the students sitting or shimmying on their “fossil layers.”

When the students unwrapped their fossil sandwiches, they found the candy had created imprints in the bread, which is similar to what happens when rock layers pile up on top of one another over time.

“Computing is increasingly prevalent across all disciplines, and COWGIRLS in STEM aims to share the joy of computing with students and introduce them to basic concepts that will facilitate their potential to thrive in computing careers across all disciplines,” Pilkerton says. 

Campers agreed.

“We learned how to program a hive and bumblebees,” said Farrah, one of the campers.

“This is a really good camp to go to if you like STEM,” Jovie, another camper, said. “We got to learn a lot and made some good friends.”

“Most assuredly,” chimed in Addy, another camper who programmed a Scratch game in which players attempt to find a hiding hedgehog. “It (hedgehog) changes its place every second. You get one point every time you click on it. I got 32 in a minute.”

Jenna Goodrich, a UW senior from Cheyenne majoring in computer science and one of the camp’s near-peer mentors, said she wishes she had something like COWGIRLS in STEM to attend when she was growing up. She entered college with an undeclared major, but an introductory computer science course during her second semester as a freshman gave her guidance on choosing a career.

“I really enjoyed it and thought this was my path,” Goodrich said. “I think if I had something like this, I would have known my path a lot sooner.”

“This is a good teaching experience for our mentors,” Pilkerton says.

This year’s camp was supported by the UW School of Computing through Wyoming Innovation Partnership funds. Inaugural funding for COWGIRLS in STEM was provided by the Stewart Family Serviceship Award, Wyoming Afterschool Alliance and the UW Science Initiative.

“A core value of the School of Computing is to be inclusive, and including many more girls and women in computing is critical for this,” says Gabrielle Allen, director of UW’s School of Computing. “COWGIRLS in STEM is contributing to this goal, and we are very happy to support its work.”

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