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Elms College Wins NSF Grant for Project to Spark Girls’ Interest in STEM Fields

CHICOPEE — Elms College announced that its Computer Science department has been awarded more than $188,000 through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to fund a project designed to spark interest in computer science and related fields among middle-school girls in Holyoke.

The project — which will include participants from UMass Amherst, Holyoke Codes, Girls Inc. of Holyoke, and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke — will combine robotics, coding, and a simulated natural-disaster situation.

The project, titled Girls Involved in Robotics Learning Simulations (GIRLS), was born after Beryl Hoffman, associate professor of Computer Science at Elms College, met Florence Sullivan, professor at UMass Amherst College of Education, at Holyoke Codes, an organization that provides opportunities for kids to get involved in coding, robotics, and technology.

Hoffman and Sullivan aim to learn more about the role of immersive simulation scenarios in encouraging girls to take interest in and learn about computer science and robotics.

“Our whole objective is to get more girls interested in computer science and robotics because the statistics are pretty dismal,” Hoffman said, pointing out that female students tend to make up 15% to 25% of computer-science majors, and that the field of robotics has even lower numbers, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Hoffman and Sullivan are hoping that hands-on experience will pique girls’ interest and show them the possibilities inherent in computer science and robotics. “Robotics is something that you can touch and see,” Hoffman added. “With robotics, you actually see your coding come to life to solve real-world problems like finding survivors and delivering supplies during a hurricane. I think that really helps to make it real for kids.” 

In year one of the project, the team will finalize all materials and curricula, and test them in single-day workshops. In year two, the educational program will be implemented in partnership with Girls Inc. of Holyoke and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, with 40 to 60 female students expected to participate. In year three, the team will open the program to middle-school-aged boys, too, and analyze the outcomes of coed learning.

The program will incorporate two groups: experimental and control. The control group will receive only the robotics curriculum, while the experimental group will receive the robotics curriculum plus an immersive narrative that provides the framework for the natural-disaster simulation.

“Our idea was to immerse them in a real-world simulation, building off their experiences with Hurricane Maria and hearing about it in Puerto Rico to show that robotics and technology can really help people in those types of situations,” Hoffman said. “We’ll be using wheeled robots and drones, and they’re going to write code and have the robots go off to find survivors or deliver supplies. That will help the girls realize that you can go into technology and still help people, help society, and there’s a real purpose for it. It can be quite creative.”

The team will use pre- and post-tests, as well as surveys, to gauge the girls’ interest in computer science; they also will videotape interviews with participants and analyze their impressions.

Sullivan is the educational researcher on the project; Hoffman, the computer scientist, will be responsible for developing the computer-science and robotics aspects of the curriculum. Hoffman will be also responsible for creating the computer-science and robotics pre- and post-assessments. The team also includes Andrew Pasquale and Lissie Fein of Holyoke Codes, who will develop the curriculum and the pilot program, and education doctoral student Ricardo Poza. 

As part of the grant project, Elms will offer three paid internships, one per year, to junior or senior computer science or CITS (computer information technology and security) majors. “The interns will help teach the research project’s robotics curriculum to the middle-school students,” Hoffman said.

The funding for the three-year grant project, which stems from the National Robotics Initiative branch of the NSF, totals $570,697; the Elms portion is $188,394. The team plans to publish its results and share the curriculum through a project website.

“All we need to do is spark an interest,” Hoffman said. “The middle-school age is when their interests awaken to different career paths. If we can open their eyes a little, even if they haven’t ever considered going into technology, then all of a sudden after this one week, they might think, ‘that was actually really exciting — maybe I do want to explore that.’”

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