ORNL & the Team Behind the ‘Artificial Intelligence: How Computers Learn’ TechShop

Written by volunteer Alison Perch

Thomas Proffen, Steven Young, Katie Schuman & Dasha Herrmannova
Pictured (from left to right): Thomas Proffen, Steven Young, Katie Schuman, Dasha Herrmannova

Running a new TechShop topic is never a solo endeavor. It takes many volunteers to prepare the curriculum and share their expertise with middle school girls.

Volunteers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in East Tennessee recognize that leading TechShopz is a team effort. In particular, the Women in Computing (WiC) group at ORNL has come together to teach girls about machine learning, text mining, and other topics related to computer science.

ORNL performs world-class research in a variety of scientific disciplines, including high-performance computing. WiC is a networking group at ORNL that aims to provide a supportive environment for women in computing. The group also focuses on recruiting new female students and postdoctoral researchers to ORNL.

ORCSGirls, a Tennessee-based nonprofit powered by TechGirlz, reached out to WiC for volunteers. Thomas Proffen, who directs the High Performance Computing, Modeling and Data Analytics Science Initiative in Neutron Sciences at ORNL, is the founder of ORCSGirls.

Recent volunteers from ORNL include Katie Schuman, Dasha Herrmannova, and Steven Young. Katie, Steven, and Dasha all research and develop new machine learning techniques and algorithms.

Machine Learning, unplugged.
Katie, a member of WiC, took the lead in developing a TechShop on machine learning, which included an innovative “unplugged” activity. ORCSGirls has run the class twice and will use the materials at an upcoming “Introduce Your Daughter to AI” workshop, organized by ORNL.

Dasha has created and run a TechShop on text mining using Python, where the girls learned secrets about the Harry Potter books. This workshop is currently being written up to submit to the TechShopz in a Box library.

As women in tech, Dasha and Katie want to share their passion for technology with the next generation of girls.

Katie was inspired to pursue a career in tech by her brother, a software developer, and was inspired to pursue a career in machine learning research by various professors at the University of Tennessee. Most notably, Lynne Parker, who was one of the only female faculty in Computer Science, encouraged Katie on this path.

“It was extremely valuable for me to have women technologists as role models through college and graduate school; I hope to be someone that girls can look up to as a role model and to provide a potential path forward to a career in technology for those girls,” Katie says.

Dasha was inspired to pursue a career in tech by her dad, who taught her how to use a computer before she started school and explored interesting games and applications with her. This experience made her comfortable enough to take after-school programming classes in high school and later apply for a computing degree.

Helping a student during a workshop.
Dasha recognizes the importance of early exposure to STEM, noting that it was a key factor in her career decisions. “I am excited nowadays there are opportunities and events like TechGirlz and ORCSGirls which enable girls to explore this field and try out for themselves what a fun experience coding and building can be,” she says.

Both Katie and Dasha have built impressive careers as computer scientists. Katie has a Ph.D. in computer science and is now a Russell Early Career Fellow at ORNL. Dasha, who also has a Ph.D. in computer science, is a visiting researcher at ORNL. Throughout their schooling and careers, both have faced challenges as women in tech.

Katie notes that she often was (and is) the only woman in computer science classrooms, meetings, and conferences. “This often feels as though I am responsible for representing women as a whole rather than just myself…” she explains. “This is one of the major reasons why I am actively involved in a variety of women in technology groups, conferences, and outreach programs — I want to see more women in the room!”

For Dasha, building self-confidence was a challenge. “When I started my undergraduate degree, there were only a handful of other women at my university which has sometimes led to me feeling as if I don’t fit in,” she notes. “I’ve been fortunate to meet the most amazing mentors throughout my studies and career who had helped me overcome my discomforts and to grow.”

Now, Dasha and Katie are mentors themselves. In addition to their work with TechGirlz & ORCSGirls, they participate in outreach efforts and support computer science undergraduates and graduate students.

Presenting during a workshop
As ORCSGirls volunteers, Katie and Dasha are impressed by how much the girls are able to learn and accomplish during each class. They also note that the students seem bolder in a girls-only setting. Both women plan to continue developing and improving curricula for TechGirlz.

Katie notes that “volunteering with TechGirlz is an amazing opportunity to engage with and mentor young women who are excited about technology. The opportunity to communicate the field that you love to young people is extremely rewarding.”

Dasha agrees, noting that she’s learned a lot about new areas of technology (including robots and 3D printing) as a volunteer.

Thanks to groups like Women in Computing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, girls will have strong role models who encourage them to explore the possibilities of technology.

Your organization can get involved with TechGirlz, too! Visit our Volunteer page to get started.