Meet The Girls of Iganga Secondary!

17 07 2019

We have 2 new programs we are introducing to STEM through robotics in 2 new locations. We are equipping these 2 schools and delivering teacher and student training to help get them started and will be including them in our events this year as we begin to grow the robotics community and interest in Uganda. The first school, Iganda Girls Secondary School we visited we had met before indirectly in a few regards. Many of the girls from this school had been involved in the Django Girls Coding Conference that was held in Jinja last year and Just Cause sponsored. So they were eager learners with a little bit of experience in computer programming. The computer science teacher at this school is none other than Teacher Silbert, the teacher that was teaching at Jinja SS when we first met the team of kids that would form J-Robotics 4 years ago! 4 of these same students became part of the STEAM outreach program that we started and are now the leaders! So we knew we had someone on board there at Iganga Girls SS who was familiar with what we do & knew enough about it that when he contacted our outreach crew in the spring to come out to Iganga to share what they have accomplished and show the girls robotics and our program that this was a great match for us. Plus, our main organizer and logistics manager who has been a massive part of JCEO from the start is from Iganga himself! So that was a nice bonus too!

We packed a lunch for the 3 university students coming with us to deliver the program so they could eat in the car during the hour drive from Jinja to Iganga and be fueled up and ready with their A game to get the teachers and more importantly the students interested and motivated to try this new program! We had pre-organized all of the equipment that would make up the startup kit and loaded it into the car as well as prepared the software licenses/downloads needed. This was largely made possible thanks to significant equipment donations (facilitated by long time JCEO supporter Karthik!) from an American robotics team, Mann Robotics from South Carolina and a Canada team (Renaissance Robotics from St. Thomas, Ontario) as well as the VEX Robotics company themselves. HUGE shout out to all who helped with this effort! It is an amazing example of a team effort to get these girls going!

When we arrived we were greeted by another of the CS teachers, Teacher Paul, who walked with us to the school’s computer lab. It was actually fairly well equipped in terms of the number machines, they were just not new by any means but they would (probably) run the software okay. This is always the first thing we assess because if a school needs computers or a laptop it is something we have to plan for back home and not leave equipment there. The boys had told us when we talked about this last month that this place was better equipped than Jinja SS so we knew ahead we were going to be ok in this regard.

So we unloaded the car and laid out what we had brought and inquired with Paul which machine they would want the software installed on. Some of the packages are a download so we used our mobile hotspot to download it for them onto the class projector’s laptop and thatway it could be moved to other machines as needed. Then the students started arriving for the presentation.

The girls that were coming in were all part of the computers club at the school. This school has 1600+ students and 90 (!!!!) of them are in this club! We were SO impressed with this number and couldn’t believe it and we had no idea our audience was going to be this huge! The girls had been released from regular classes which is unheard of here for any reason at any school because this presentation was very important to them. The reason for this is that the UCC, Uganda Communication Commission had been to their school and was pushing them to get the girls involved in STEM initiatives. It was a part of a government program but of course it did not come with much direction or any equipment, funding or real guidance. The head teacher and the headmaster were both thrilled that we were there and were all about “educating the girl child” and how the “girls are not often encouraged for sciences and technology”.  They were very happy with our timing and that we had agreed to come there.We certainly had a captive audience because a UCC initiative is serious biz!

After a brief intro about JCEO, what we do and why girls in STEM matter, Baker, Picavet and Ronnie took it from there. They were incredible and taught the intro like pros! Watching and listening to them in action really, really drove home how much they have learned and gained over the 4 years involved with us — through the Hackerspace, STEM events & robotics competitions, their own tech startup and JCEO Outreach programs. The way they chose to explain things using a human body analogy and repeating and returning to previous terminology was perfect for a newbie to robotics to start with! It was just such a cool thing to watch! We couldn’t have been more impressed. The questions from the girls throughout the presentation were terrific! They asked things like “when the body gets old, people get sick and have problems or die, do you think that is also the same as a robot”? Which brought in a great discussion about parts, wear and tear, obsolescence and code! Another good one that made myself and the boys laugh “What happens at a competition if your robot breaks down?”. That one brought about some personal stories from each of them and a discussion about teamwork and the value of persistence, trouble shooting and not becoming discouraged. The coding was something they were a bit nervous about but we showed them how to use the graphical interface that basically lets you write a program in plain words and as long as you can describe in a sentence what you want to happen you can code it! With a  live human demo and the command blocks projected on the screen as we went through it, we could explain this well:  “move forward for 10 seconds–>pause for 2s–>if you see the colour blue infront of you turn right—>otherwise keep going straight”. Then with the click of a button you can “translate” it all into the Python programming language, providing a great way to learn to write actual lines of code!

The president of the club, Sharifa, expressed her thanks on behalf of the girls and said that they are determined to learn enough to join us for a robotics competition this year and will not let us down! Our final message was to tell them we believe in them, never to let anyone tell you you cannot do something because you are a girl and that we know they can beat the boys!!! We made some plans to head out there at the teacher’s request to support the team through their first couple of builds for 4-6 sessions over the next 2 weeks. By the time we were ready to head back to Jinja, we were all pretty pumped up and excited! The number of interested kids, the enthusiasm, support from teachers and the questions they asked left us very pleased with the decision to partner with this school. For JCEO, as a female led organization, we have been really trying to get more girls involved in our STEM programs and made it one of our goals for 2020. It looks like we are certainly going to meet this goal and it is fantastic to have so many Ugandan mentors, teachers and students well aware of the gender gap in science & tech and on board to try and challenge this stereotype and get girls involved!


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