Alexis Kaganas, 13, straightened a wobbly wheel and snapped a black cable into a plastic jack to connect a gray square to the chassis of a vehicle. 

With one last click, her team’s robot creation was ready to roll. Almost.

“Why isn’t it moving?” The Levine Academy seventh grader scratched her head, a bit bewildered at first. 

But with a few more adjustments, and moving the cable to another port, her frustration changed to giddy excitement. The four-wheel contraption jolted forward, then lunged back before finally spinning across a classroom floor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“There it goes,” Alexis said. “We made it work. This is so cool.”

She was ready to show off her team’s creation at the Innovate(her) conference conducted last week by Capital One associates in partnership with the UTD Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

This is the third year mentors from the university and the financial corporation shared their professional experiences and led activities to prepare middle school girls from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area for success in college and various careers.

About 350 middle school girls gathered for the one-day event to learn about personal branding, design thinking, finance basics, programming, coding, robotics and technology. Using the TI Robotics System Learning Kit, the students learned how electronic system designs work. They built robots and learned how to code to design an app. This was the first time a Bot Camp, an advanced Coders curriculum, was presented at the conference.

Utilizing technology in everyday life is not uncommon on the Richardson campus where robots that look like white ice chests on wheels deliver food to students on a regular basis during the lunch hour. “It’s important for young students to learn early on how to visualize a design and put it into practice with hands-on experience,” said Shery Gaziani, 20, a mechanical engineering sophomore at UTD who teamed up with the girls to help during the conference. 

It’s also about team work.

“We worked together,” said Yulianna Bravo, 14, an eighth grader at Kennedy-Curry Middle School in Dallas. “My partner, she figured it out.”

For many, this was their first exposure to how computers work. They learned how to test them and find bugs and fix them.

Capital One’s EmpowerHer, a women’s business resource group, encourages innovative thinking and inspires young girls to pursue education and careers in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), said Monica Shortino, director of social innovation at Capital One.

While many girls and boys begin with an equal interest in STEAM, girls are more likely to become disengaged along the way, Shortino said, and even fewer go on through high school and college to launch a tech career.

“The Innovate(her) program was created to educate young women about technology, finance and the entrepreneurial mindset necessary for a successful future,” she said.

Capital One works with partners like UT Dallas across the region as part of their Future Edge initiative aimed at making Dallas-Fort Worth a destination for top talent and spur growth as a world-renowned technology hub. 

Following the 2019 program, Capital One reported, participants showed a 46 percent increase in interest in a technology career and a 51.4 percent increase in becoming an entrepreneur. They showed a 40.4 percent increase in understanding design thinking and a 56.8 percent increase in their confidence in handling personal finances, according to the report.

Confidence is key to nurturing a female workforce in technology, a mentor said.

That was evident in the conference’s coding lab, where students worked intently behind computer screens, moving the mouse to click together pieces of color-coded puzzles to make an app for a Mole Masher game.

“I never knew so many steps went into making an app, but I feel smart that I can follow the logic and make it work,” said Ja’Riah Nicole Holley, 14, an eighth grader at Kennedy-Curry. 

It was also fun, said her teammate Linda Siu Ksor, 13, another eighth grader at Kennedy-Curry.

“It’s like solving a mystery and you feel good that you got the answer,” she said.

Once their app was designed, they scanned a bar code onto a tablet and began playing the game they created, much like whack-a-mole, an arcade game in which players use a mallet to hit randomly appearing toy moles to get them back into their holes.

When they wanted to make the game more challenging, they went back and changed the coding to speed it up.

Whether creating a robot or a game app, one thing the girls learned is that the career outlook for women in technology is wide open. Gabrielle Gonzalez, 13, a seventh grader at Richardson North Junior High School, said she liked learning from professionals at the conference about working at such technology-oriented firms as Twitter and Netflix. “There are so many things you can do with computers,” she said, adding that she wants to be a sketch artist for police investigations and juries.

No matter what field someone chooses, Jaina Amaloo, 12, of Richardson North said, writing and solving computer codes and building things together require collaborative work.

“It’s a science that requires people skills, and I like that,” she said, adding that she wants to draft architectural plans to design buildings.

Lainey Wren, 13, a seventh grader at Levine Academy, saw the importance of collaboration first-hand when she and her team built a robot at the conference.

“I knew it would work because we worked so hard on it together,” she said. “Even if it didn’t work right away, we could always put our brains together and figure it out.”

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based, award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning...

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