Volunteer Spotlight: Thomas Proffen

The start of ORCSGirls and the tremendous role TechGirlz played.

Written by volunteer Alison Perch

Thomas ProffenGrowing up in Germany, Dr. Thomas Proffen had an early love of science and technology. He took advanced physics and math classes, and he loved playing with his first computer: a Sinclair ZX81, with only 1KB RAM. Proffen’s passion for STEM eventually led to a PhD in physics, two postdocs, and a career in science.

Proffen now works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and he has shared his love of STEM with his children, Lukas and Klara. While serving as a mentor for Klara’s LEGO League robotics team, he noticed that boys often dominated the mechanical and programming work, while girls decorated the posters.

Group WorkFollowing this experience, Proffen realized that girls-only technology activities would be beneficial for his daughter and other young girls. After running some after-school classes, Proffen decided to broaden his reach and founded a 501(c)(3) organization called ORCSGirls (Oak Ridge Computer Science Girls) in January 2017. ORCSGirls empowers middle school girls in East Tennessee to explore STEM careers and aims to close the gender gap in the technology profession.

According to Proffen, TechGirlz and its TechShopz in a Box program were essential to the development of ORCSGirls. TechGirlz sponsored a ProjectCSGIRLS event that his daughter attended, which is how Proffen made the connection. TechGirlz’s lesson plans and TechShopz playbook served as the foundation for ORCSGirls.

“Having TechGirlz resources and the ‘brand’ helped tremendously when getting new efforts off the ground,” Proffen explains. The free workshop plans allowed him to expand on existing lessons, and the “Powered by TechGirlz” branding helped him access classroom space and recruit volunteers. “No TechGirlz equals no ORCSGirls,” Proffen says, emphasizing the strong partnership between the two organizations.

TeamworkDespite being a fairly new nonprofit, ORCSGirls has already run 16 events with 200 girls participating (about 60 unique girls), some in close partnership with Girls Inc. Oak Ridge. Topics have included mobile app development, 3D printing, and computer simulations. Many ORCSGirls volunteers are women employees at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and girls on the Oak Ridge High School robotics team. Proffen says running TechShopz is a “fantastic and energiz[ing]” experience. The best part, he says, is “seeing when girls [are] unleashed, not doubting themselves, and just being awesome.”

A volunteer assist girls in a workshopProffen’s curiosity and love of learning have persisted throughout his life. His latest passions are virtual reality, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. Proffen has some inspiring words for both prospective instructors and girls interested in technology. “I wish people knew how easy it is in many ways to put on TechShopz… Expanding and reaching more girls really only works with more instructors,” he explains.

Google Cardboard exerciseFor middle school girls interested in STEM, Proffen encourages them to keep trying. He says: “Failure (debugging) [is] part of the road to success and learning, and boys are not smarter — they just think they are.”

For more information about ORCSGirls, visit ORCSgirls.org.

Be sure to check out the TechShopz in a Box topics Thomas created and shared with TechGirlz: Computer Simulations-Agent Based Simulations Help Solve Complex Problems & Introduction to Virtual Reality (VR) are in our library now!