Black Girls Code Robot Expo

Group photo

Last weekend I had the privilege of volunteering at the Black Girls Code Dallas chapter Robot Expo. I don’t remember exactly how I learned about BGC, but to be honest I think it was a case of mistaken identity: When Prince died I saw an interview with Van Jones from CNN wherein he lists a few of the philanthropic pursuits of The Purple One (about which his faith compelled him to be discreet). One of those organizations, which he helped to create, was YesWeCode… not BGC - oops!

I only discovered my mistake upon rewatching that video months later, but it was too late - I was already receiving the BGC newsletters about events happening all over the country and feeling like I really ought to get involved. I can’t exactly bemoan the lack of diversity in my chosen field if I’m not willing to do something about it, now, can I? I think BGC is a good fit for me because it’s something that I feel strongly about, I possess relevant skills that can be put to use, and there’s a chapter nearby in Dallas. Also, I have an inexplicable knack for being able to hang with some kids. (Upside to being a manchild, I guess?) I’ve done very little volunteer work in my life up to this point (I know, shameful), but that changes starting… well, a few days ago!

For Saturday’s Robot Expo, girls ages 7-17 registered in advance and paid (I believe) $35 (including lunch and snacks - most of the BGC events are $35 or “donation”) for a full day of learning to create and program Lego Mindstorms robots. There were around thirty 7-10 year-olds who were split into groups of three or four girls and given a Lego WeDo kit. Each group built a little alligator robot that opened and closed its mouth, optionally reacted to a motion sensor in its mouth, and played a variety of sounds on an attached computer.

Lego WeDo

The thirty 11-17 year-olds were also split into groups and given a Lego Mindstorms EV3 kit. This is where I was assigned to help as a tech assistant. These groups built more complex two-wheeled robots and incorporated a variety of sensors to accomplish various tasks.

Lego EV3

Both groups started the day with a few icebreaker activities and some flowcharting and general programming exercises. Then it was on to assembling the robots. From there, everyone moved to the auditorium for a demonstration of a real autonomous delivery robot by Savioke, which was a big hit with the girls - I think every girl there had some sort of question for the presenter and practically mobbed Relay (the robot) as it made its way out like it was… I dunno, Justin Bieber or something.

Savioke Relay robot

After lunch we all returned to the lab to begin programming the robots. Both the WeDos and the EV3s are programmed using a drag-and-drop IDE not too terribly unlike LabView (in fact, the LabView logo sits at the upper right corner of the Mindstorms IDE - which was a surprise but makes perfect sense, I guess). Both WeDo and EV3 IDEs have different categories of blocks for controlling motors, processing sensor information, program flow control (loops, delays, etc.), playing sounds and such. The EV3 IDE also includes more complex functions like writing to files and using Bluetooth connections.

The first task for the EV3 group was to get the robot to move. From there they were allowed to follow the curriculum - adding an ultrasonic proximity sensor to their bot and changing the code to react to it - or come up with their own unique design, and then present it to the class. We were short on time and there was some concern that we’d have to concentrate on groups that were further along just to make sure there would be a complete bot to demonstrate at the final assembly, but I’m pretty sure every group had a unique, working bot to present to the class. It was impressive - one played songs (each note having been coded individually) and danced, one had a working scoop, a few reacted to obstacles with the proximity sensor, others made elaborate combinations of movements. These girls really knew what they were doing! I was helping them constantly, but half of the time it was just to dig through spare Lego parts to find something they needed.

Final demonstration

Each class chose two groups to present and demonstrate their bot at the final assembly in front of all the other students and their families. Then the sad part: disassembling the robots and saying goodbye. Except… swag bags! (How can anyone be sad when there are swag bags?) The highlight for me was when one of the groups came and sat next to me at the assembly to keep me company. tear

It was completely hectic and after six hours I felt like I had been working for twelve, but it was a (dare I say?) life-changing experience. The other volunteers were amazing humans, every single one, and the organization (both the nationwide organization and the local Dallas chapter) put on a top-notch event. I strongly encourage you to participate - there are events happening all the time, all over the United States, and plenty of opportunities to volunteer, whether in a technical or non-technical role. Sign up! It’s a great way to spend a Saturday. And drag your significant other along too, like I did!