Grant presented to female-driven AspireIT


Dominika Chruszcz

From left to right, Mr. Tennison, Holly Pasquinelli, Div. 860, Mr. Ara, and Mr. Law pose in front of the main office with Pasquinelli’s check. Her award is funded by NCWIT’s partners: Intel, Google, Northrop Grumman and Apple.

By Dominika Chruszcz, Editor-in-Chief

Siri and Alexa, key components of modern voice recognition technology, didn’t work for half of the population when they were first created. Kate Pickle, AspireIT Program Manager, recalled that “if a woman spoke to a phone with voice recognition, the phone wouldn’t recognize a woman’s voice.” This was due to the lack of women being on the development team.

AspireIT Outreach programs aim to offset and diversify the gender gap in technical fields.

Holly Pasquinelli, Div. 860, has been assigned the challenge of undertaking the AspireIT Outreach program, a camp for female elementary school students, for the third year it’s being implemented at Lane.

AspireIT stems from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), which “connects high school and college women with K-12 girls interested in computing,” according to the NCWIT website.

Pasquinelli received a $3000 grant—the maximum amount of money they can award to program leaders—to use towards the curriculum for the female students they’re catering to. Pasquinelli’s award is funded by some of NCWIT’s partners: Intel, Google, Northrop Grumman and Apple.

“They [program leaders] write an application to us that says ‘These are the age groups we want to work with, this is how many girls we think we’re going to serve, this is our budget and we’d like to ask for this amount of money,’” Pickle said.

Additionally, full scholarships have been granted by the Lorca Elementary School for 10 of their female students that have signed up to attend the AspireIT program. It is located at 3231 N. Springfield Ave. Joan Mendelson, Lorca Elementary technology teacher and Robotics Coach, wanted to give “the opportunity to as many girls on the team as possible.”

Students who have signed up for the camp come from different Chicago elementary schools besides Lorca Elementary. The first meeting is scheduled for Feb. 17 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it continues for seven weeks until April 21.

According to Pasquinelli, her commitment to becoming an AspireIT Program Leader has been challenging for her since she had to start fresh without the help of the 2016-17 program leader, who is now in college.

Mr. Law, Computer Science teacher and AspireIT Program Partner, said that the “program is fairly intense in terms of organization.” The curriculum for AspireIT is decided by Pasquinelli herself.

“The whole idea of these AspireIT camps is that it is a camp for girls by girls,” Law said.

This “girls by girls” outlook for AspireIT supports NCWIT’s goal to enhance more female representation within professional technical fields.

According to an NCWIT report, “women made up 25 percent of computing-related occupations [in 2015].” AspireIT alone has “gifted more than $800,000 to 300 programs” and “[provided] an estimated 240,000 instruction hours to nearly 8,000 girls,” based on NCWIT’s website as well.

“By having a diverse workforce and a diverse team that is designing and creating and inventing and moving our future forward, we assure that the products that will be created will work for a much larger percentage of the population,” Pickle said.

Pasquinelli said that a possible lesson the participants will get to learn about will involve block programming and Scratch, a programming language.

According to TechTerms, a programming language is “a set of commands, instructions, and other syntax [used] to create a software program.” Aspects of robotics will also be implemented into the curriculum.

“Last year, we introduced e-textiles for the first time.” Law said. “The girls made circuits out of clothing and they made interactive face masks. The younger kids, fifth and sixth graders, made plush dolls that had LED’s and buzzers embedded in them.”

Lizbeth Morales, Div. 979, was one of last year’s AspireIT instructors. She said that she collaborates with Pasquinelli on which projects to complete with the elementary schoolers, as well as what kind of improvements to make.

“I really enjoyed seeing [students] have fun with computer science,” Morales said. “And since I never got that opportunity when I was younger, I want to keep on going with this program so those other girls can have another opportunity.”

First-time AspireIT program participants described how the program could help project their future ambitions career-wise.

Adrianna, a sixth grade student at Lorca Elementary, aspires to be an engineer. Jelissa, another sixth grade Lorca Elementary student, hopes the AspireIT program will help her achieve her aspiration for creating her own invention.

“[They’d be] contact lenses that hold a computer chip where it could pop up a screen and you could control it with your mind,” Jelissa said. “Learning from robotics, I could learn how to code it correctly and how to make it realistic.”  

Jelissa, Adrianna, Crystal, and Carol, two other sixth grade Lorca Elementary students, enjoy working as a team and are looking forward to group activities within the AspireIT program. They are each part of the Lorca Elementary Robotics Team.

“I like working in a team because we get different perspectives of different ideas through code or to build,” Carol said. Crystal said that she also likes working in a team because “[the group] can get more done.”

According to Mendelson, the female and male Robotics Teams are each composed of 10 students. Just this year, the majority that made up both teams were sixth graders. The team has met twice weekly since September.  

“We strategize, build the attachments [for the robot], write the code, test it iteratively: the engineering process,” Mendelson said.

Ms. Cynthia Gaspar, Carol’s parent, likes the idea of Carol participating in the AspireIT camp because she has seen her interested in building different creations and “using her mind.”

Pasquinelli said that according to the sign-up form for the AspireIT program, over 50 participants have responded — the biggest turnout compared to the past two years of the camp which yielded about 30 female participants.

Mendelson said she hopes that her students will come back as stronger leaders due to their participation within the AspireIT camp.

“I feel like we’re sending them with good skills,” Mendelson said. “But they’re going to come back with even greater skills that will really benefit our entire school.”