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Two Toms River Regional Schools students work in the open spaces of Grand Central Station during the #ForUsGirls trip to NYC Aug. 7.

Last week, Aug. 7, young women ages 11 through 18 from Toms River Regional Schools boarded a bus bound for Grand Central Station, NYC. The #ForUsGirls excursion was a continuum of the summer Girls CodeCamp and the district’s broader initiative-- through TR:TechReady-- to introduce girls to coding and computer programming, fields where females are traditionally underrepresented.

Once at GCS, groups rotated between Swift coding playground at Apple Grand Central and an AI (artificial intelligence) for Social Good workshop at Bryant Park led by Aminka Belvitt, creator of the ForUsGirls Foundation. During these two sessions, the young ladies learned a variety of 21st century skills. During their work at Apple’s Genius Bar they learned to code in Swift Playgrounds, learning commands and functions all while developing an interactive game. At Bryant Park, the girls logged onto iPads in order to explore and discuss how to create socially responsible A.I. The discussion ended with an exploration of several AI apps including Pikazo, which uses a special neural algorithm and artificial intelligence to transform everyday snapshots into works of art.

When tours of Apple and lectures in the park were completed, the young ladies went to SAP Next-Gen at the SAP Leonardo Center at Hudson Yards for pizza and a hands-on mini-workshop led by Tiffany Lucey, supervisor of educational technology at TRRS, on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning applications. During the workshop students explored Seeing AI, an AI application which uses the device camera to identify people and objects and which audibly describes those objects for the visually impaired. Teachable Machine with Google uses the device camera live in the browser, to train a computer vision system to recognize objects (inputs) and produce GIF, sound or speech outputs.

The afternoon featured a design thinking workshop led by Joann Halpern, the director of the Hasso Plattner Institute. During this inspiring workshop, small groups of girls were paired with global mentors who were in NYC for an international conference from the Hasso Plattner Institute and presented with a problem to solve-- air pollution in cities. With their mentors, the girls navigated the steps of design thinking and embarked on the journey of learning to work as a team to solve a problem. Students started by understanding the problem utilizing design research methods including interviews and observation. They synthesized the data and created a user-centered point of view. They then brainstormed innovative ideas to create tangible prototypes to test and assess with a feedback loop to better understand the potential solution and make better-informed decisions.

From this experience, students learned how to apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way, used a set of tools that are fundamental to Design Thinking and human-centered innovation, came to understand the importance of interdisciplinary teams, an iterative process, and a flexible workspace, and developed new ways to collaborate with their team and key stakeholders. To do this, the young ladies not only had to learn the steps of the design thinking process, but they also had to learn the skills of communicating effectively, empowering each other, and being flexible.

The day was made possible by the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-funded TR:TechReady program, which aims to increase engagement and capacity in coding for all students. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects computer science research jobs will grow 19 percent by 2026. Yet women only earn 18 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees in the United States and are 19 percent of the AP Computer Science enrollment population according to the College Board. According to the American Association of University Women, computer science has one of the smallest pay gaps between male and female professionals, with women earning 94 percent of what men earn.


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