New school program in Surrey gets girls interested in gadgets

SURREY — Spring break is often a time for kids to take a break from school and get outside, but for a group of elementary school girls, it’s become a chance to plant seeds for their future.

What that future may contain can be anything ranging from space travel to robotics engineering, and they’re getting a head start on those aspirations thanks to a new program hosted by the Surrey school district and SFU Surrey.

Called Girls in Action, the program is the female equivalent to the Sticks and Stars program, which engages at-risk students using sports programming as well as hands-on technology and science workshops. In this case, the workshops were held during spring break, giving the students a chance to keep busy.

While the Sticks and Stars program has been running for the past three years, 2015 marks the first time the Girls in Action program has come to SFU Surrey, and this past week 100 female students from the district took full advantage of the opportunity.

"They get a good idea about the place of science and technology in the world today," explained Nimal Rajapakse, SFU’s dean of applied sciences. "It’s about doing whatever we can do at the early ages, showing them how science and technology can shape society, the impact of that and what they can do in pursuing studies and careers in this direction."

For these workshops in particular, the students are tasked with designing and programming robots using Lego Mindstorm kits, which are a combination of robotics pieces and Lego. The girls were then divided into teams and tasked with constructing and programming a robot capable of competing in a robot sumo match.

"I think it’s really awesome because I’m learning about robots," said Grade 7 student Skyler during the workshop. "I’m learning about electronics and how they have these eyes that can tell where your hands are."

By giving students like Skyler a chance to try her hand at robotics, Rajapakse said he hopes it will in turn encourage more girls to pursue the field as a career.

"The focus there is in our offering programs in engineering and computing science, because one of the challenges is to attract more female students," he said, noting the field is typically male-centric.

But if Grade 5 student Gursimran is any indication, Girls in Action may already be planting those essential early ideas.

"I sort of want to be an engineer now because I’m doing it," she said. "You can make them however you want and they look cool, too."

Rajapakse said he hopes to see the program expand and reach as many students as possible.

"This is a win-win situation for the school district and the university."

With files from Adrian MacNair

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