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Virtual Workshops with Black Girls Code and MissionSAFE

Guest bloggers Ishaani, a MathWorks UX Specialist, and Vidya Gopalakrishnan, a MathWorks Senior Technical Writer, bring you this story of organization and outreach amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. MathWorkers are finding ways to continue STEM outreach and learning, even during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that has us all learning and working from home. MathWorks hosted a virtual Pocket AI and IoT workshop and STEM panel with Black Girls CODE and with MissionSAFE August, organized and led by Louvere Walker-Hannon, who works closely with both organizations. Louvere is the Curriculum Lead for the Black Girls CODE Boston chapter and has close connections with the MissionSAFE organization and leadership. You can read more about Louvere in this article by the Society of Women Engineers, Women Engineers You Should Know.

The Organizations: Black Girls CODE and MissionSAFE

Louvere chose the organizations for these workshops carefully, looking to bring the powerful content of the workshop to populations that typically have less access to such opportunities. Black Girls CODE follows the motto “Imagine. Build. Create.” Kimberly Bryant founded BGC to provide everyone with the tools to learn, create, and access information to without the bias of color or gender. Louvere began volunteering with the Boston chapter of Black Girls CODE in 2016. Soon she became a part of a core group of volunteers, and in 2019, Louvere became the curriculum lead for the Boston chapter for BGC. Black Girls CODE does more than teach girls to code. BGC provides workshops, career fairs, and even curricula that provide the girls with problem solving skills. After all, coding is just a way of implementing a solutions to existing or upcoming problems. BGC also gives girls exposure to tech companies, career opportunities, and resources that these girls could easily reach out to in the future. Sister Anne Carrabino, S.S.S., and Nikki Flionis founded MissionSAFE after working with families in the Boston Housing Authority's Mission Main Housing Development. The development had a reputation for gang violence, and the founders saw a need for programming to uplift teens living in the development and foster their growth amidst the chronic stress and trauma brought on by living in poverty and near violence. MissionSAFE aims to be a place where hope thrives. The organization works with Boston at-risk youth and their families to ensure the youth have the required skills to not only survive but also thrive while working to improve their communities. MissionSAFE using a relational, developmental, and trauma-informed model that aims to cultivate resiliency and positive growth in participants. The workshop and STEM panel were hosted as part of MissionSAFE's Summer Leadership and Service program.

The Workshop: Pocket AI and IoT

The first part of both outreach engagements involved guiding participants through the Pocket AI and IoT workshop, originally developed for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2019 (GHC19), which Louvere Walker-Hannon brought to ODSC East. In the workshop, participants are taught to build a fitness tracker through a series of three activities that introduce the concepts of sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), and the internet of things (IoT). A large group of MathWorks volunteers came together to make the workshops happen, contributing to activities such as checking code quality, presenting the material, editing the slides, and assisting the participants during the workshop. Due to COVID-19, both of these workshops were delivered remotely, using online collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Workshop helpers got creative, using GIFs and other media in the chat to contribute a personal touch to the remote, text-based communication with participants. Attendees use their own mobile devices to count their steps, classify their activities, and send their movement data to ThingSpeak, so workshop helpers had to be prepared for debugging issues remotely, without having that interpersonal touch. They used on-the-fly surveys to gather information about how participants were doing with each exercise and to help diagnose problems they encountered. The chat mechanism also allowed helpers to give step-by-step guidance to participants all at once. Students in both workshops were both lively and engaged in the chat and with the presenters and helpers. Participants did not give up when the workshop experienced glitches related to the virtual delivery. The presenters and helpers loved interacting with the participants and getting to know how thoughtful the young generation can be!

The Panels: Representation Matters

Each outreach event followed the hands-on workshop with a panel, where students had the opportunity to interact more directly with the panelists and ask questions they had about STEM, careers, and anything else that came to mind. Louvere facilitated the panel for both events. For the Black Girls CODE event, panelists, all MathWorks volunteers, included:
  • Karthiga Mahalingam, a Technical Consultant.
  • Tugce Kasikci, a Senior Content Developer.
  • Vidya Gopalakrishnan, a Senior Technical Writer (and guest author of this post!).
At the MissionSAFE event, the panelists, all MathWorks volunteers, were:
  • Wendy Alexis-Janvier, a Senior Product Lifecycle Marketing Manager.
  • Corey Silva, a Software Engineer.
  • Chad Allie, a Customer Success Engineer.
  • Maria Gavilan-Alfonso, a Senior Online Content Developer.
At both events, the students were engaged and able to ask their own questions they had for the panelists. Both panels showcased a variety of job roles within MathWorks, emphasizing that a career in engineering is not always focused on coding or code testing. Students learned about other roles engineers play to work together building a product that is useful to our community and our future. Panelists also expressed their enjoyment of the panel activity. One said, "It was very refreshing to hear young minds speak about their aspirations, beliefs, and future plans. One of the participants wants to follow a career path in cancer research and help the world find a cure for the disease!" When seeking panelists for this portion of the events, Louvere embodied the credo "Representation matters." At the Black Girls CODE event, all panelists were female engineers, with Louvere herself being specifically and importantly a Black female engineer. At the MissionSAFE event, all panelists came from Black and Latinx communities, similar to many of the participants. Both outreach events targeted communities of people often severely underrepresented in STEM fields. For these events, representation in the presenters and panelists adds to the impact because participants learn from STEM professionals who look like them or others in their community. The similarities and kinship facilitates participants' ability to see themselves in STEM, building our future.

After the Workshop: Looking to the Future, What You Can Do

At both outreach events, with Black Girls CODE and MissionSAFE, the Pocket AI and IoT workshop gave attendees an overview of what they can achieve with a mobile phone's built-in accelerometer and MATLAB. The STEM panels showed that each attendee could achieve a career in STEM if they desired and that a career at a software company is not only about coding and testing. MathWorks volunteers, led by Louvere Walker-Hannon, continue to plan more virtual outreach events for the future. These events have proven the workshop and panel as a highly successful model for engagement in a socially-distanced world. What can you do to help encourage this type of outreach? If you work with an organization interested in hosting a similar event, reach out to Louvere Walker-Hannon at lwalker@mathworks.com. You can also support Black Girls CODE and MissionSAFE directly through volunteering or with a monetary donation. Both organizations are working to adapt and continue to provide their crucial services virtually during the pandemic. While MissionSAFE is local to Boston, Black Girls CODE is nation-wide: check to see whether your city has a local chapter of Black Girls CODE!
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