Catalyst Code Squad Conference 2016

As a first-year university student, it’s fair to say that there are plenty of things I have yet to experience. However, last week, I got to check off something off of my university bucket list.

For those of you who have attended a conference, you have only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Last week, I had the opportunity to run the Code Squad Conference with Claire Heymans, Outreach Coordinator for Women in Engineering. This conference is hosted under Catalyst, a Faculty of Engineering initiative aimed at engaging high school students to be future STEM advocates and leaders. Specifically, the Code Squad Conference is targeted towards Grade 10 girls to spark their interest in computer science and software. With the financial support from TD Bank Group and Google, this conference was a once in a lifetime experience!

To clear up any presumptions about this program, no, Code Squad is not meant to persuade female youth to become software engineers. At the very least, it is intended to introduce young women into various topics and applications of computer science, and hopefully, it will inspire them to pursue technology as a lifelong passion—and if it encourages them to further their education in this field, that’s an added bonus!

The conference began on Sunday evening, which was spent assembling the girls’ Pi-Tops. A Pi-Top is a build-it-yourself DIY computer kit that comes equipped with a Raspberry Pi which powers the bright green laptop. With much patience and perseverance, all our girls succeeded in assembling the laptops that they would be using for the duration of the conference.

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of workshops and lessons learned; for example:

Monday morning was a workshop well spent on introducing the concept of object-oriented programming (OOP) with Python. OOP basically uses minimal code to provide a profile of different “objects” you want to assemble. Yet, as simple as Python is compared to other programming languages, it’s still the smallest errors in syntax that make you tug at your hair. I discovered that if you mix spaces with indents, you will question your sanity (I didn’t realize this until I was helping the girls troubleshoot their code). When writing the initialization method, never, ever forget the two underscores before and after “init.”

On Monday afternoon, we visited BoltMade—a software company that works with its clients to develop the most end-user friendly software possible. Katie Cerar, a UX Designer and UW graduate from System Design Engineering, led our girls in a rapid prototyping workshop. Together, we walked through how to brainstorm and innovate, and by the end of the workshop, our girls had created their own new and improved social media apps.

Tuesday was a hard-core hardware day—breadboarding, soldering, and Arduino. I learned these skills rather informally, so being responsible for “formally” instructing the girls was a bit challenging. I learned that—unlike me—tenth-graders don’t really care how an LED works—that is, until they wonder why it turns on when it’s put into a breadboard one way and stays off the other way. Rather than trying to explain how to solder, it’s more efficient to pair someone who hasn’t soldered before with someone with soldering experience.

On the same day, we also tackled a wearable electronics project. I think that most of our girls thought that sewing is really simple—until you’re the one who has to actually do it. But to be fair, I couldn’t imagine my 15- or 16-year-old self being proficient at sewing either. The first test is being able to thread the thread through the needle. Looking back even today, I still have no idea how to explain how to sew to a group of girls who have sewn before other than making the needle go in and out and in and out. Besides, the only experience I’ve had with sewing is sewing my patches onto my covvies… I was even wearing my covvies this day, so I easily could have showed our girls how to sew by adding on another patch or two.

Thankfully, the evening before, I had made a quick cheat sheet to show how connections between LEDs, pushbuttons, and digital pins worked and some sample code for lighting up an LED, so it provided our girls with some additional guidance.

Wednesday was an introduction to what I like to call “advanced Scratch”—a neat website called App Inventor to create your own Android applications. Like Scratch, it is also a creation courtesy of MIT and makes use of block programming—dragging and attaching blocks to each other to make the code work its magic.

Unlike Scratch, it has many additional functions, so it was a bit more of a hassle to find the blocks that you actually want to use. However, the girls quickly learned how to navigate the search for blocks. With a handy online tutorial and me around to ask specific questions about syntax, the girls were hosting their own pizza parties within no time. I really hope that they’ll continue to tinker with their apps when they get home—it would be sweet to see everyone’s orders via geotagging on a map! The possibilities are endless!

Wednesday was also a special day because Mary Wells, associate dean (outreach) and mechanical engineering professor, paid Code Squad a visit. Along with our girls, we got to tour TD’s innovation space in Communitech and discover what TD’s employees do in this unique space.

Before I forget to mention it, they did all of this within Communitech—tech hub of companies like Christie Digital, Deloitte, and, of course, TD Bank Group. I think our girls caught the entrepreneurial spirit while developing their apps in a legitimate boardroom.

On Thursday,—the last day of our conference—our girls also got to share some of their knowledge with little ones back at ESQ’s March Break camp. They played Lightbot with the first- to third-grade students—coincidentally, Claire had also arranged for them to meet with Lightbot’s developer, Danny Yaroslavski (UW graduate from Computer Science), the day before. Lightbot was one of his undergraduate projects, intended to teach young children how to think computationally.

Needless to say, every day was jam-packed with workshops, many questions, and a lot of troubleshooting. But, like our girls, I learned a lot as well. On top of nitty-gritty details that would cause errors in Python/Arduino/App Inventor code, I also learned a thing or two about interacting with high school students and teaching.

I really wish that I had taken advantage of the fact that high school students are completely competent at reading instructions on their own—unlike the elementary school students that I’m so accustomed to working with. However, by providing one-on-one support, I had the opportunity to talk with our girls and get to know them—which I found fascinating because I was their age only a mere three years ago.

Special thanks to TD Bank Group and Google; without their financial support, none of what we did would have been possible.

Thank you to my co-workers, who were always there to answer my silly questions about hardware/software and readily provided me with psychological support during my weeks of learning/prep leading up to the conference. You guys rock and totally nailed March Break camp!

Finally, a big thank-you to Claire for entrusting her brainchild with me. Never would I have ever got to experience what behind-the-scenes work goes into a conference without this opportunity. The passion you have for your job is awe-inspiring—you’re the real MVP!

For those of you with younger siblings who are in Grade 9 or have yet to enter high school, encourage them to participate! It’s a fantastic way to work on projects relating to trending topics in computer science and to meet like-minded peers.

For those of you who have attended conference,s before but have yet to be on an organizing team for a conference, give it a shot! I’ll admit: It’s a lot of work, but you’ll realize that it was all worth it once you see the smiling faces on delegates’ faces!

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