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ORNL Staff Volunteer to Give Local Girls a Leg Up in STEM

Oak Ridge National Laboratory staff joined forces in January to teach local middle school girls the fundamentals of computer science and the art of using pictures to tell data-centric stories.

The “You Can Code!” event, held January 21, helped area girls tackle the basics of computer programming, a skill that is becoming a requirement in an increasing technological job market.

Computer science opens more doors for students than any other discipline in today’s world. Learning even the basics will help students in virtually any career—from architecture to zoology. The chance to design an app or an algorithm is a critical experience that could greatly affect a young person’s future career track.

It was this realization, which came after helping with coding classes at his daughter’s middle school, that made Thomas Proffen of the laboratory’s Neutron Data Analysis and Visualization division start Oak Ridge Computer Science Girls (ORCS Girls), the organizers of the event.

“The group of volunteers were wonderful and I know the students were very impressed even calling them ‘cyber security superheros’,” said Proffen. “This is a wonderful opportunity to showcase ORNL staff caring and being involved in community activities.”

Larry Nichols of ORNL’s Cybersecurity division echoed Proffen’s enthusiasm. “Seeing the smile and expressions when the students learned how to create what they were playing was priceless,” he said. 

The ORNL Women in Computer Science group was instrumental in helping to recruit volunteers for the event. 

Volunteers from the laboratory’s Computing and Computational Sciences directorate (CCSD) included Wael Elwasif, Maria McClelland, Kelly Cambron, Kimberley Morrison, Laurence Nichols III, and Fernanda Foertter. Volunteers from the Neutron Sciences directorate (NScD) included Thomas Proffen and Shelly Ren.

Then, on January 28, ORCS Girls hosted “Infographics: Proving Your Point With Pictures” as part of the same program. Volunteers included Proffen, CCSD’s Kate Evans and Megan Bradley, the Nuclear Science Division’s Tara Pandya, and Heidi Hill of the laboratory’s Communications directorate.

“The time I spent with the ORCS girls was really rewarding because I had a chance to share some of my knowledge with students who are full of ideas and eager to learn,” said Hill. “As someone who works in science communication, I know it can be difficult to translate complex science into bite-size media, so it’s neat that these skills are emphasized to students who can use them in school and in their future careers—especially in STEM.”

ORCS Girls seeks to bring more STEM-themed events to the region and create more lesson plans aimed at teaching America’s youth the essential fundamentals of science and technology. The group uses and also contributes to lesson plans from TechGirlz, a 501(c)3 nonprofit “dedicated to reducing the gender gap in technology occupations.” through “fun and educational hands-on workshops, called TechShopz, and an annual Entrepreneur Summer Camp.”

To volunteer or help with lesson plans and projects, feel free to email or visit the “ORCS Girls” Facebook page at  or ORCS Girls online at .