What a way to spend summer other than at summer camps. A number of elementary and middle school students spent their last part of summer at the COWGIRLS in STEM (Computational Outreach for Wyoming Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) camp. A program that was created by a University of Wyoming student, gave the opportunity for their participants to build computer games using Scratch programming, work with robots, and learn Earth's geology by completing a time grid and making candy-filled sandwiches to understand how rock layers compress.

COWGIRLS in STEM took place from Aug. 1 to 4, at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Laramie, where the upper elementary students would meet in the morning, while middle school students would gather in the afternoon. Most of the participants were from Laramie.

The program is aimed to revolutionize how youth experience computing and STEM by facilitating interactive learning in female-led environments and bridging the STEM gap through relationships. It is an innovative computer science experience designed for youth across the state of Wyoming to teach them 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. They learned how to program a "robot" to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, explore iterative programming basics with “hula hoop loops,” and create binary bracelets through binary coding. After having all the computational thinking and computer science basics, the campers were encouraged to create their own programs or applications.

Then, on the final day of camp, the students focused on geology projects. For this part of the project, students used colored informational cards with geological events in history -- including Devils Tower (40 million years ago) and Yellowstone National Park (17 million years ago) to place them in the proper historical order.

The students got them pretty accurate. The project amazed the students with facts such as that Wyoming was once in the inland sea, and trees were the first plants before grass.

Jenna Goodrich, one of the camp's mentors, and also a computer science major from Cheyenne said that she wishes she had something like COWGIRLS in STEM to attend when she was growing up. Entered college with an undeclared major, if she had such a  program back then, she thinks she would have known her path a lot sooner.

This year’s COWGIRLS in STEM 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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