Photos by Alicia Park and Heidi Norton
My first exposure to TechGirlz was this awesome t-shirt, which caught my eye while at the Philly Women in Tech Summit last year:
After the conference, I checked out the TechGirlz website and was blown away by the range of workshops they offer… for free. Building websites, making games, developing circuits and hardware, coding in every language. Parents can either sign their daughters up for in-person workshops or families can download the workshops at home.
Instead of simply asking for donations to fund their work (which you can also do!), TechGirlz is quite innovative and asks for donations of time, expertise, and enthusiasm. People working in technology can lead in-person workshops or develop new lesson plans. After speaking with several women on the TechGirlz team, I was so inspired to design and lead a workshop.
With the help of my blog co-founder, Heidi Norton, and my roomie, Cassidy Blundell, who are also PhD students in bioengineering at Penn, we came up with a ton of fun ideas for our TechShop, some more feasible than others… Since there were not yet any TechShopz with a focus on biotech or bioengineering, we were really excited to develop something in this field. But, biological science is expensive y’all! (And can be dangerous, messy, etc.) This made development challenging, but certainly not impossible.
We landed on developing a computer-based motion-tracking workshop in which the students use Matlab to capture and track movements using only a smartphone camera. While motion-tracking has many applications and spans multiple fields, we approached the workshop from the perspective of comparing the human eye and brain to the smartphone camera and the computer. What capabilities do the human eye and brain have that allow us to track movement and intelligently identify objects? How can we replicate this using a camera and computer? What does such technology enable in the real world?
- If you work in any technical field, you are qualified to do this! All engineers and scientists have special skills that can be taught to others. When I developed the Matlab Motion Tracking workshop, I considered what aspects of my own work I found most fun and exciting. Chances are that others will too!
- Consider including elements of creativity in your TechShop. Although our students were extremely well-behaved and focused throughout the workshop, they really got into it when we asked them to make their own videos for motion tracking and be completely creative. This is what gets students hooked on tech.
- Teach the topic from basic concepts on up, but also leave room for more in-depth conversations. At the end of the workshop we left time to discuss the parallels between the human eye and brain versus cameras and computers. Several of the students made connections that were far beyond a middle school level. One student connected training an algorithm to identify patterns to humans gaining experience throughout their lifetime. I was super impressed!
- Design the workshop with awesome friends. Working with Heidi and Cassidy to develop the workshop made the experience great. While we are in the same PhD program, our topics of study are completely different. Collectively, we study everything from the smallest pieces of DNA to imaging an entire organism! Also, working with friends is fun and this fun will translate to your students.
- Ensure that the workshop you create can be accessed in an open-source format so that students can continue exploring at home. This is something we are still working on with our workshop as we transition the code from Matlab to Octave. Although this will not work with all topics, it’s a great added bonus!
If you are interested in experiencing the Matlab Motion Tracking workshop at home, keep an eye out for it on the TechShopz page, where you can also access the full range of TechGirlz’s TechShopz in a Box. We are also currently developing a workshop focused on DNA analysis using hand-held PCR machines in collaboration with Biomeme. We spoke with Biomeme scientist, Maria Chacon-Heszele, last year.
TechGirlz provides an innovative (and organized!) opportunity to give back to the next generation of students interested in STEM. It also left me feeling joyful and rejuvenated about my own work, an added perk to a great day!