AspireIT Program Gets Kids Engaged through Programming for a Cause

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These days, there’s an app for just about everything. But, who designs the apps that make a positive difference in the world? At the Girls’ APPspirations programming camp, held in 2018 in Roseville, Minnesota, sisters Grace Su (age 17) and Cindy Su (age 13) put the power of coding for social change in the hands of elementary and middle school girls. 

Research shows that when it comes to getting students from diverse backgrounds engaged in computing, “connecting technology with community issues is vital.” As this NCWIT Promising Practices report explains, “Culturally responsive computing (CRC), in particular, helps youth examine the relationship between technology, identities, cultures, and communities. In short, a chief goal for CRC is to involve girls in becoming technosocial change agents — that is, individuals who can interrogate and intervene in existing societal and power relations even as they design new technologies.” When students can see how the programming skills they’re learning can be used to solve social problems in ways that are relevant to their own lives, they’re more likely to sustain an interest in computing over time. 

This approach informed 2018 Minnesota Affiliate Award for Aspirations in Computing Recipient Grace Su’s vision for Girls’ APPspirations. Grace won a program grant from the AspireIT outreach initiative to offer the August 2018 camp at no cost for twenty-four girls in grades four through eight. Along with her younger sister Cindy, Grace used the MIT App Inventor platform to teach participants fundamental programming skills such as functions, parameters, booleans, strings, databases, and much more. Then the participants split into groups to work collaboratively on apps that they designed and built themselves, with the goal of using technology to help solve a social issue that they cared about. 

One of the apps that the students created, called “Needly Point,” addressed the lack of awareness among youth about homelessness and poverty. The app provided educational games for kids along with actual maps of local donation centers where they could make contributions. An app called “Chinese Life” aimed to provide a free, engaging resource for learning a second language, while “Jobinteer” addressed unemployment and a lack of positive participation in society by listing local work and volunteer opportunities with minimal skills or experience required. Students designed the “Eris News” app to collect uplifting, fun, child-friendly, and trustworthy news articles, and built an app called “Panic? Relax!” to offer quick and safe resources to help users deal with anxiety attacks.

As Grace Su explained, “We wanted to provide an opportunity for female students to discover the exciting opportunities technology offers at a young age since women are underrepresented in the technology field.” In addition to teaching participants to code, the sisters also invited a guest speaker who worked as a senior data developer to talk to the girls about computing jobs. At the end of the camp, students showcased their apps, earned gift card prizes, received program certificates, and got a list of helpful educational websites to continue programming after the camp. Grace and Cindy concluded, “Girls’ APPspirations was a great experience for us. We hope students were encouraged to continue exploring technology and its careers through their camp experience.” And, from the feedback they received from both students and parents, the sisters got what they were hoping for: the girls were truly engaged, and they enjoyed learning programming through developing their own apps to help solve real-world issues.

Aspirations Community: 
National Award

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