News: CJ Exclusives

Red Hat event teaches girls the importance of collaboration through coding

Software company teams with local universities to encourage young women to develop leadership qualities and technical skills

Students from Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy learn from Red Hat mentors how to use code to build digital cameras during the CO.LAB Open Source Story event Nov. 1 at Raleigh's Pullen Park. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
Students from Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy learn from Red Hat mentors how to use code to build digital cameras during the CO.LAB Open Source Story event Nov. 1 at Raleigh's Pullen Park. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

Patrons of Raleigh’s Pullen Park may have heard the furious clattering of keyboards from a mobile lab stationed Wednesday on the park grounds. Inside, middle school girls were learning to write code and build digital cameras as part of CO.LAB Open Source Story, a brand new event hosted by Red Hat.

The open source software company teamed up with Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, North Carolina State University, and Duke University to empower girls to explore the STEAM field. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

Earlier this year, Red Hat took its mobile lab to Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Over a two day period, Red Hat mentors taught female students how to use open source technology to write code and build digital cameras.

CO.LAB is more than just a coding exercise. It is also an opportunity for the girls to work together by creating a photo story about their city with the Dora Sigerson Shorter poem “I Am The World” as an inspiration.

“We are trying to introduce these girls to the principles of open source and collaboration in a way that makes it fun to learn and we are using coding to do that,” Paula Weigel, the program co-owner of CO.LAB, said. “Coding is just the vehicle.”

During the first day the girls listened to women from N.C. State and Duke share their experiences with the STEAM field.

One of the speakers was Aria Chernik, the director of OSPRI — Open Source Pedagogy, Research + Innovation — at Duke. She talked with the students about the importance of collaboration and community in transforming education.

“When we think of 21st-century learning we often think of collaboration being the key, so it’s not so much the professor standing at the front of the room transmitting knowledge, it’s more of how we can create these learning communities,” Chernik said.

After the girls learned how to build their digital cameras, they got to explore the city and take photographs with the Shorter poem in mind. The real lesson on collaboration begins when the girls have to work within their small groups to select the best picture that represent the poem.

“We are going to teach them how to work through the situation of: ‘If you think you have the best picture, how do you have influence over your group? How are you inclusive to other perspectives in your group?’” Weigel explained. “It can be messy.”

Weigel said it is moving to watch the girls give their presentations, because it is an opportunity to express themselves without the careful curation inherent in using social media.

“This is just raw and real,” Weigel said.

It is no surprise Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy was chosen to participate in CO.LAB, with a mission statement focused on graduating “students who are collaborative, creative, effective communicators, and critical thinkers.”

Leilani Del Cid, an eighth grader at the Leadership Academy, said she was excited to take part in CO.LAB, especially with the photograph portion.

“This event is really cool and I like it a lot,” Del Cid explained. “Learning how to code and build the cameras was a lot of fun.”

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, a nonprofit aimed at encouraging girls to pursue STEAM careers, women make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering work force.

“I know in general that women are just underrepresented in technologies fields,” Weigel said, speaking for herself. “I feel that if we can talk to girls at this age in middle school while they are still informative and trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be, we can instill some of these values in them. No matter what path they take, they are going to be better equipped in the work force.”