Girl (Programming) Power

Malaysia Hilliard won the Girl's Leadership Award at last year's C-STEM competition
Malaysia Hilliard won the Girl's Leadership Award at last year's C-STEM competition

Standing in UC Davis’ ARC pavilion surrounded by dozens of other girls, aspiring Aggie Malaysia Hilliard cheered alongside her American Canyon Middle School classmates who had built a robot for the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM) RoboPlay competition.

“Go Turtle! Go Turtle!” the girls chanted in unison during the slow but steady progress of their white-and-blue Linkbot.

Although she was only in the sixth grade at the time, the competition was a turning point for Hilliard, who was already active in Mathletes and curious about programming. The fun she had with her friends inspired Hilliard to compete in the next RoboPlay competition. Despite having only four weeks to form a team, raise funds for the entry fee, build the robot, and produce the video, her team ended up placing first for “Most Interesting Task.”

Hilliard and her teammates enjoyed the experience so much they asked their math teacher, Tammy Lee, to expand their school’s robotics course from an after-school program to an official elective. Hilliard also began practicing robotics on her own time in hopes of attending the UC Davis C-STEM Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp during the summer.

Impressed with Hilliard’s leadership and initiative during the video competition, and her drive to learn robotics on her own time, Lee helped Hilliard apply for the C-STEM Girl’s Leadership Award. This new UC Davis award was made possible by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, Harry Cheng, who donated the cash prize from the 2013 MESA Achievement Award, which he received from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“The GIRL Camp and Girl’s Leadership Award are designed to inspire middle school girls to pursue computing and STEM related careers,” said Cheng. “I chose to donate my prize to establish the Girl’s Leadership Award in hopes that doing so would motivate others to contribute and sustain the award fund to help continue highlighting the STEM related accomplishments and achievements of girls.”

Attending GIRL Camp allowed Hilliard to improve her programming skills, learn more about the robotics field, and connect with like-minded girls and engineering mentors at UC Davis—which is ranked No. 1 in the country for advancing women in STEM by College Database.

“My goal is to maintain my 4.0 GPA through high school so I can attend UC Davis and become an engineer,” said Hilliard, now in the eighth grade. “I also want to encourage new students and other girls to participate in C-STEM Day. It’s a really cool feeling knowing that when you program a robot to move, you know that you did that—that you made that robot come to life.”