Lowell School Program Breaking the Code to ‘infinite Options’

April 3, 2019

LOWELL -- Players must capture a star bouncing across the screen to win the computer game fifth-grader Melanie Charbonnier is designing.

Behind all the action is an image of a galaxy. According to Charbonnier, this choice of scenery was no accident,

“It shows the infinite options that girls can now have,” she said.

Charbonnier is one of ten students enrolled in Girls Who Code, a 12-week after school program at Daley Middle School run by Instructional Technology Specialist Barbara Fauvel-Campbell.

Project LEARN and Lowell Public Schools introduced the program offered by the nationwide nonprofit, Girls Who Code, to the district at the beginning of this school year.

In part, the program is meant to build skills students can use in higher education and the workforce.

But it’s also meant to address a challenge. Project LEARN Executive Director LZ Nunn said only one in five computer science graduates are women.

“Unfortunately girls lose interest in science and we know this by research -- by fifth grade, sixth grade,” Fauvel-Campbell said. “Whether it’s not cool anymore and not something they think is girly.”

Fauvel-Campbell said the program at Daley Middle School exposes girls to coding around the time they might otherwise lose interest.

“Many times they think if I’m going to go into computer science then I have to be a computer programmer and that’s it,” she said. “There’s graphic design, there’s programming, there’s coding, there’s web development.”

This semester, one student is designing a dancing robot, she said. Another is creating a fashion website.

Three students teamed up to create a maze that rewards players with inspirational quotes. Alexia Nou, a fifth-grader, showed the character players will use to navigate through her maze -- a smiling potato.

In a game designed by her older sister, sixth-grader Bella Nou, players must navigate up and around blocks and other obstacles. Like others in the class, she is using Scratch, an introductory programming language.

The concept isn’t far from many games in the “platformer” genre, but Nou has a twist on the concept. Each stage is themed after a famous woman in history.

She showed off the Susan B. Anthony stage, which she explained players will encounter alongside the Amelia Earhart and Ruby Bridges stages.

“I wanted to make it about woman empowerment and show woman can change history,” Nou said.

In addition to programming, the Girls Who Code portal operated by the nonprofit offers stories about woman who have made a difference in the world, Fauvel-Campbell said.

Fauvel-Campbell also runs the STEM Club at Daley Middle School. She said a few years ago only about a third of students enrolled in the after school program were girls. This year it’s 62 percent.

She said girls who complete Girls Who Code and want to continue with similar to work are encouraged to apply to this club.

Since October, 177 girls at the district’s nine middle schools and Lowell High School have participated in the program. The program was funded through $25,000 in donations from Kronos, the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation and the Women Working Wonders fund at the Greater Lowell Community Foundation.

Nunn said Project LEARN plans to support Lowell Public Schools in expanding involvement in this program to over 400 students annually.

“Through our partnership with Project LEARN our students are benefiting from coding skills that help spark their interest in the field of technology,” Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin said in a statement. “This is an exciting partnership, and we are grateful for this collaborative effort to expand learning for our students.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins