LaShya Washington, an 11-year-old Mendota Elementary School student, sat with a laptop in a classroom in the School of Human Ecology building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on Tuesday afternoon, typing instructions to a robot.
“You can make it turn, move, say things,” said Washington, setting the Finch robot on the ground near her chair. She hit the space bar on her laptop, and the robot — a shoe-sized gizmo on wheels that looks like a lilywhite blobfish — “spoke” using text-to-voice technology. “I love STEM and Maydm,” it said, in a tinny voice.
Maydm is a nonprofit dedicated to exposing youth, particularly girls and children of color, to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — also known as the STEM fields. It was the organizing force behind RoboSmarts, a new summer course in artificial intelligence and robotics that was responsible for honing Washington’s skillset with the Finch.
Twelve elementary school-aged students took the twice-a-week course, hosted primarily at the Steenbock Library on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. All of them were girls, and most of them were students of color.
Washington was giving a demonstration of the robots on Tuesday for a showcase event for the public and parents. Other girls who had just completed the eight-week course were also on hand to talk about and show off what they’d been working on.
Giselle Tlahuextl-Toxqui, 9, gave a demonstration of an artificial intelligence program developed by Google called Quickdraw. The online tool allows users to doodle using prompts, and by analyzing its crowdsourced database of millions of doodles, tries to guess the subject of the drawing.
She tried drawing a bed, although Quickdraw wasn’t able to figure out her doodle — it guessed “car” and “train.”
Tlaheuxtl-Toxqui said she was interested in messing around more with things like artificial intelligence, “so I can learn more about the robots.”
Aminata Sow, 10, talked about how she used Scratch, a popular programming language in K-12 education, to make computer models of people or animals that could talk and move.
“I put a person up on stage, and they talked about my life,” said Sow, describing an animation she created with Scratch.
She also mentioned the field trips the class had gone on. One that stood out for her was an outdoor excursion with a crew with Findorff & Son, the local construction company. They gave a demonstration of their drones, which they use for aerial monitoring of construction sites.
“They were cool. They took a picture of us,” Sow said. “We all lay down and wrote ‘Maydm’ on the floor.”
She added that she hoped to learn to fly a drone eventually.
For some of the girls, the skills they learned weren’t entirely new. Six of them had taken a Maydm class before — specifically, an after-school program at Mendota Elementary where they learned web development skills.
The courses are part of Maydm’s primary mission to help youth from demographics that have not historically been represented in STEM to feel they could potentially thrive in those fields.
“It is our hope that over the course of the program, the girls have learned not only how computer science is shaping our future, but how each of them can play an important part in this community as well,” said Winnie Karanja, the executive director and founder of Maydm — itself a shortening of “made by them.”
For at least one student, it seemed like that mission was achieved.
“I was thinking that when I grow up, I could do this, and make a robot, and help people in the hospital,” said Fanta Sangare, age 9. “Sometimes there are things really far away from them, and they could just tell robots to get them for them.”
Sangare did a lot of toying around with the Finch robots over the summer. She noted one programming trick in which she could stick her hand in front of the gizmos, and have them automatically change direction — the coolest thing she had been able to get them to do thus far.