Today’s youths are in tune with and committed to a variety of social issues facing our nation and world. A group of West Virginia 4-H’ers is using their savvy computer and coding know-how to virtually address one of those critical issues – stereotypes. Their work has earned them one of 40 spots nationwide in a Facebook hackathon.
The Kanawha County Plane Janes Girls Who Code 4-H Club, hosted at the Kanawha County West Virginia University Extension Service office, recently participated in Facebook’s Engineer for the Week, a program aimed at demystifying the world of technology while empowering youths to explore engineering and develop computer science skills.
As part of the three-week long program, the club split into two groups and focused on Facebook’s Chatbots for Change, a competition requiring the creation of an artificial intelligence that would prompt online conversations with human users.
The team comprised of Christina Sivaprakasam, Askya Patterson, Jayda Witcher and Carley Weber focused their efforts on stereotypes, an issue they find prevalent in their schools and communities.
“Stereotypes about race, gender, ethnic backgrounds, religion and sexuality are big issues in our world, including in our schools and the towns we live in,” said Sivaprakasam, who has been a member since the club was started in 2015. “Our group agreed that education about these misperceptions, including the different forms of stereotypes and how to combat them, was important if we wanted to see real change. This project provided us with a platform to engage and inform users in a unique way.”
Enter Stereobot. Stereobot provides human users with an opportunity to ask questions and learn about different stereotypes using Facebook Messenger. The chatbot interacts with users by sending informational links and other relevant information to create awareness about various topics and to encourage conversation.
The group was given three weeks to design and develop their idea, then code, test, correct issues and retest their chatbot, providing an opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills and ability to think creatively. The result: an invitation to the Facebook headquarters in California, May 1 - 4 to compete in Facebook’s Engineer for the Week Achievement Summit and Hackathon. The team will compete against the 39 other teams chosen from around the country. Those 39 spots were hard won, with more than 97 sites competing in just one round of the initial competition.
“In 4-H we use the expression ‘learn by doing,’ which really sums up the work that these young ladies did in creating Stereobot,” said Kanawha County WVU Extension Service 4-H Agent Jocelyn Crawford. “It is awesome that this group got to use not only their coding skills, but empathy, imagination and teamwork to make a real product for people to use, and then be recognized for their hard work. That is what STEM education is all about.”
The team is already preparing for the next round. With one student unable to attend the summit, fellow club coder Blaise Adams has joined the team preparing for the summit’s hackathon. The girls have been spending time, including spring break downtime, to practice for the hackathon.
“I am really proud of our girls for their hard work because this is 100% their achievement,” said Emma Gardner, club leader and STEM educator at West Virginia State University. “They chose the topic, did the research, wrote each response from the bot and put everything together on their own. All the adult volunteers really had to do was figure out a few bugs, and submit the final product to Facebook for judging. They’ve done amazing work, and I am so happy they will be recognized for it.”
During the event, Facebook will provide each team with a social impact issue to address. They will spend 12 hours during the first two days to develop, code and test a game using MIT’s Scratch programming language. On day three, each team will pitch their final product to a panel of Facebook judges. Facebook will select the top three teams and make donations to each team’s charity of choice.
“Being involved with this club has allowed me to learn and interact with things outside of my comfort zone,” noted Patterson, who also has been part of the Plane Janes since its inception. “It’s also reminded me that women need to see that they can do anything, even in jobs that are typically dominated by men. This whole experience has been really cool.”
The venture is one example of moving West Virginia forward. The more West Virginia can provide STEM education and learning opportunities for youths throughout the state, the better prepared our young people will be in securing positions in today’s high-tech job market.
West Virginia Forward is a statewide collaboration led by West Virginia University, the state Department of Commerce and Marshall University to help grow the economy by adding jobs, investing in education and improving health and wellness to create the most prosperous West Virginia possible.
CONTACT: Tara Curtis
WVU Extension Service
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