Katrina Cole and Malaysia Hilliard at UC Davis girls leadership robotics camp

Katrina Cole, standing, and Malaysia Hilliard, sitting left, coach middle school girls at UC Davis’ Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp, held July 10-14.

Submitted photo

Having spent the past five years learning about robotics and computer programming in American Canyon, Katrina Cole and Malaysia Hilliard got the chance this summer to help coach other teen girls at UC Davis.

The American Canyon High School students served as assistant coaches at the Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp, organized by the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM).

There, the 16-year-olds spent a week serving as mentors and training 20 middle school girls in computing and robotics. Along the way they forged some lasting connections.

“I miss the camp,” said Hilliard. “I miss the girls. We got to know them so well, and they’re such smart girls.”

The GIRL Camp was about more than learning how to make robots function. There were also discussions and presentations on leadership, and how girls can overcome negatives stereotypes about being smart and female.

“We would show them it’s OK to be a nerd,” Hilliard said.

Cole said she still hears from some of the girls who were at the camp, which took place July 10-14.

“One girl I still talk to her,” said Cole. “She’ll text me out of nowhere because I had a connection with her. It’s kinda cool.”

Cole came away impressed with how bright the girls were, and how quickly they learned.

“From Monday to Friday, it was crazy how much they grew” in terms of knowledge, she said.

Cole and Hilliard have learned a lot themselves since they first got involved with robotics in sixth grade at American Canyon Middle School.

Their teacher, Tammy Lee, launched robotics as an afterschool club, eventually turning it into a class that inspired a robotics club and curriculum at ACHS. The Napa Valley Unified School District is now expanding robotics to other schools because of the successes in American Canyon.

Hilliard and Cole were asked to serve as assistant coaches at the GIRL camp by UC Davis Professor Harry Cheng, the C-STEM director.

“Katrina and Malaysia are two young women who represent some of the foremost ideals” of the GIRL Camp, “that is, peer mentoring and leadership,” said Cheng. “These two students have not only excelled in their personal academic pursuits, they have demonstrated time and time again a desire to share their excellence with others and lead by example.”

“Having exhibited leadership qualities and a commitment to the C-STEM program,” Cheng added, “they were perfect candidates for assistant coaches and role models at the GIRL Camp.”

The fact they were selected to be mentors and coaches reflected the leadership qualities Cole and Hilliard have also demonstrated in high school.

Last year, as sophomores, they started a new club — Girls Can Too! — to encourage other female students to pursue subjects and careers dominated by males.

They got the idea after enrolling in a new robotics class, which was dominated by boys. Out of the more than 30 students taking the course, they said there were only four girls.

“There was us and two other girls,” said Cole. “It was pretty intimidating.”

“It is seen as something more that guys do,” she said of robotics, so “we took it upon ourselves to bring the club here” to ACHS and “encourage more girls to join.”

“The idea is to not only get more girls into the programming we do for linkbots,” said Cole, referring to the modular robots used at ACHS, “but also to promote girls going into gender gap fields in general.”

This year, Hilliard and Cole are hoping to start a robotics camp at a local elementary school to introduce programming to girls and boys in the primary grades.

As much as they have loved being involved with robotics, they say the journey has not always been easy. Being smart and good in school, as well as girls liking robots, have produced negative reactions from some peers.

“I have had some personal encounters,” said Malaysia, who still remembers a boy in fourth grade “making fun of how smart I was” and “feeling so hurt” by his remarks.

Cole said she’s “been in the same boat as Malaysia,” with kids in elementary school trying to take advantage of her, either pestering her for answers on assignments or expecting her to carry the load in team projects.

She also said some students in her robotics classes have tried to diminish their work and accomplishments, such as being asked to speak before the school board.

They say “things behind your back, like we’re given these things just because we’re girls,” said Cole, “and that we’re given opportunities to speak at events and that we’re handed all this stuff because we’re girls in this field.”

“They’re saying, ‘You haven’t actually worked as hard for this, you haven’t earned this,’” Cole said.

She said she rejects this criticism, noting: “We’ve been doing this since sixth grade, and we’ve pursued it since because it’s something we’re passionate about.”

“We have the attitude, ‘Go get em!’”

Hilliard agreed with Cole that not everyone is on board with their participating in robotics. But there others at their high school, she said, who “think it’s cool that we do it.”

“It feels really good now to say, ‘Yeah, I’m in robotics. Yeah, I’m really smart,’” said Hilliard. “’Yes, I’m a nerd, and I’m proud to be a nerd.’”

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