Maggie Liriano was initially inspired by the robots she saw on television shows.
“I was like, that’s so cool, I want one of my own,” the fourth-grader at Mifflin Park Elementary School in Berks County said. “So I made one of cardboard when I was little, and I would dress like a robot. I’ve always asked my mom, can we get an actual robot?
“She said, ‘When you grow up, maybe you can make your own.’ “
Liriano may not have to wait that long. She got hands-on experience with a robot this year as one of the 23 third- and fourth-grade girls who participated in the school’s new Girls Who Code club.
Royer’s Flowers & Gifts, which has three Berks County stores, donated $1,050 to help the club purchase six robots and a floor mat used in competitions.
Girls Who Code is an international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Since its launch in 2012, Girls Who Code has served 500,000 students through in-person and virtual programming.
At Mifflin Park in Shillington, the Girls Who Code club developed under Mark Engle, the school’s innovation and gifted teacher.
His science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, room is alive with curious children, two chirping parakeets, a turtle, rabbit, hedgehog and fish.
It’s a beehive of activity, literally, although the one in the room is only for observation. There’s another one on the school’s “green” roof from which Engle harvests honey.
Girl empowerment and coding
The innovation curriculum covers engineering, coding and robotics, and the scientific process and environmental standards.
Kayla Morris, another fourth-grader and the daughter of an engineer, enjoyed coding in Engle’s class. She signed up for Girls Who Code as a “cool after-school thing,” she said.
Although Engle had similarly modest expectations for the club, they were exceeded quickly.
“I figured kids are going to come for a couple hours, we’re going to have some fun, and then it will be over,” he said. The reality was that the club, which met from October through Valentine’s Day, held twice as many sessions as initially scheduled, and some of the girls worked on projects on their own.
Girls Who Code has its own curriculum that promotes girl empowerment and coding. Engle said he “turned it up a notch” by entering the students into a robot competition, which promoted problem solving, innovation and teamwork.
The rechargeable robots are known as Dash. Imagine four teal balls, three on the bottom that act as wheels and one on the top that serves as a head with a big eyeball. Dash is approximately six inches tall.
One of the appeals of Dash is that students can give the robot a personality, from changing the color of its blinking lights to recording sounds for it to utter to making it dance. Some students made helmets for their robots from styrofoam cups normally used for serving macaroni and cheese in the school cafeteria.
“They can make it speak Spanish,” Engle said, eliciting laughter from club members Liriano and Morris, “although Mr. Engle never understood what it was saying because I don’t speak Spanish, but the robot clearly does.”
Using a touch screen on a pad, students can string together block code to, for instance, direct the distance that Dash travels, dictate turns and the robot’s speed.
Saturn and Jupiter
The competition comprised five challenges involving simulated visits to nine planets, such as negotiating the robot around the rings of Saturn. Students had to find a way to hook a magnet to their robots to retrieve washers, which played the role of Jupiter’s icy moons.
“They realize very quickly,” Engle said, “I did this but the magnet’s too high, it’s not picking anything up. Or I’m moving too fast. And so they not only had to do the coding problem-solving, but also what they made and would it be an effective use.”
Clearly, the lessons they have learned have inspired the students. Liriano and another classmate raised their hands to present their robots at a community event. Morris went with her family to a Girls Who Code event in New York City.
And more opportunities await as they move up to Governor Mifflin Intermediate School next year.
Liriano was incredulous to learn that Engle runs a co-ed club at the intermediate school that actually does make a robot.
“You do?” she said.
“Just made your day, Mags,” Engle said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Engle anticipates doubling the number of participants in Girls Who Code in the coming school year.