(TNS) — Kneeling on the classroom floor, Jenna Chinn taped a colored marker to the front of her robot, pushed a button, and sat back to observe.
Would her robot perform as she had programmed it? Or did she still need to debug the code?
Jenna, 13, had written specific computer code to program her robot to move in the shape of the mathematical infinity symbol, which is similar to a figure 8. As the robot moved, the attached marker traced its path.
The shape drawn by the robot's movement was almost a figure 8, but not quite. The two circles overlapped. And there was an inch gap.
She would need to debug her software. Again. It's a laborious process of testing, recalibrating and testing again until the robot's movements match the programmer's intentions.
"Let's change '765' to '763' because we have to close the gap," suggested Ellie Davidson, 13, who sat across from her.
Changing that number in the code would delay the robot's turn.
Both girls are incoming eighth-graders at Alki Middle School. They were among 38 Vancouver middle school girls who attended Girls Lead the Way summer robotics camp at McLoughlin Middle School this week. Vancouver Public Schools' summer camp is geared to introduce girls to robotics and coding and, in the process, to close the gender gap in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math.
Campers do not pay to attend. Now in its sixth year, the camp is funded by a grant from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In the first-year camp, 24 girls learned to build and program simple robots, including a hydraulic arm. A second-year camp was added after first-year campers asked: "What are we supposed to do next summer?"
The 14 girls in the second-year camp accomplished the more challenging task of building and programming robots.
The camp is taught by two female Vancouver science teachers.
"Usually, the girls haven't done anything beyond Lego robotics," said Cyndy Hagin, a camp teacher who also teaches robotics and physics at Vancouver iTech Preparatory, a part of Vancouver Public Schools.
Level-one students complete four projects, and all require soldering. Most girls had never soldered and were so enthusiastic about the experience that they asked where they could get a soldering iron. Many returned to class the next day with an exciting discovery: Their fathers have soldering irons in the garage.
Camp teacher Megan Humphrey, 27, a chemistry teacher at Skyview High School, wasn't aware of any similar opportunities when she was in high school. When she graduated from the University of Oregon in 2011, she was one of only two women majoring in chemistry.
"This is an unusual opportunity," Humphrey said about the camp.
Humphrey touted the help of the seven mentors -- Vancouver high school students who attended the camp for two summers and then return to help lead. Some former mentors have graduated from high school and have started similar camps in their college towns.
For the first two days, students built wheeled robots. Then they wrote computer code to make their robots move forward in a straight line. Once they perfected that, the girls plugged their robots back into computers and wrote more difficult code to make the robot move in a square. The next coding task was more challenging: writing code to make the robot move in a figure 8, or infinity symbol.
The second-year campers "pick up writing code so quickly," Humphrey said. "They're such naturals at this age. They don't have these mental barriers that they can't do it. They aren't old enough to have been told they can't do it. Or, if they have, at least it hasn't stuck."
Writing that code takes several attempts to perfect it. Students tested their robots, observed how it had responded to the code, and then plugged their robots into computers again to debug the code.
When a parent asked Hagin if there is an equivalent robotics camp for boys, she had to say "no." Boys are not underrepresented in STEM fields, she explained.
"I think attitudes are changing," Hagin said. "Although they're changing more quickly in K-12, they're also changing in college, but not as much."
She said the gender gap is the most noticeable when women in STEM enter the workplace.
"We still have a ways to go so that it trickles up," Hagin said.
©2016 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.