Monday, November 7, 2016

Ecology meets Technology

On June 21, 2016 girls from Laramie's Girl Scout troop participated in a Summer Coding Camp sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and Wyoming EPSCoR. The camp lasted for 3 days and took place at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center.  The nine participants were anywhere from 10-15 years old.

The course focused on concepts from both ecology and computer science to help solve real world problems. Brian Barber from the Biodiversity and Institute and Liz Nysson worked on developing the curriculum for the course.

To begin, the girls were introduced to some of the basic background of botany. Then they began to learn python coding, a type of coding typically used for beginners.

The python coding was then applied to Raspberry pi computers. These small computers are about the size of a credit card and can be used with a standard computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

"They learned basic programs and set up the circuit.  One of the firsts tasks they were assigned was to make a blinking light," Barber said.

The Arduino board was another piece of technology used for the girl's project. The board is a sensor that can be used for a variety of projects. It has the ability to detect movement, water levels, and Ph levels.

The girls used the Raspberry pi computers and the Arduino board to create a sensor they could put into a houseplant. The sensor could track the well-being of the plant and could alert the girls when it needed more water.

"It actually had a function and they applied it to a real world problem," Barber said. After the camp the girls were also allowed to keep what they had made.

While ecology and computer science may seem like to two completely different subjects, they are both essential parts of scientific research.

"Technology and computers drive a lot of our research. It requires computational power, you can't analyze the data any other way, and some of it is so specialized," Barber said.

It is also critical that coding programs such as this one are targeting younger girls. This because research has shown that once girls leave the STEM fields, they usually don't return to them at older ages. This early engagement can help foster interest in these fields and will eventually lead to more women in science

"It's empowering. They can think I did this myself, now I have the courage to try something else even greater," Barber said.

Barber and other outreach coordinators are looking forward to see how they can expand this program. Some future program ideas include focusing a coding workshop for adults and connecting this coding to Citizen Science projects.

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