Volunteer perspectives: An MLK Day event with Boys & Girls Clubs of Dallas

By | 5 minute read | January 13, 2021

While Fang Wang has advanced degrees in technology and extensive technical experience—she’s a senior software engineer on the IBM Watson Health Imaging team—it’s her deep interest in sharing that knowledge with young people that has motivated her to be a volunteer for nearly 20 years.IBM Volunteers spoke to Fang to learn more about the hour of code event she just coordinated for MLK Day in the United States.


Fang, before we talk about the MLK Day event, tell us about your background as a volunteer in STEM.
About 18 years ago, I started volunteering every summer for the IBM GIGAWOT camp, which introduces middle school girls to technology. After a few years, I started leading the robotics lab in the camp and got to know about the FIRST robotics program. I established FIRST robotics teams at multiple levels and have been coaching them for 12 years. My teams have been to super regional and world championship tournaments multiple times and my earliest team members are now in college, mostly in engineering—which in itself feels terrific.

I am grateful that IBM has supported my volunteering activities; it’s helped me discover my passion for robotics education and project-based training for kids. This season I am actually overseeing eight FIRST teams with ACP Foundation, and coaching my own FIRST Tech Challenge team, called Technicbots.

How did you become involved in this year’s MLK Day of Service?
A few years ago, we connected with local Boys and Girls Clubs (BGC) in Dallas, Texas, after demo’ing robots during AT&T’s Aspire Day campaign. After the event, we learned that even though BGC had grants supporting STEM, they were mostly missing people who could teach and lead their kids on those topics. So when our IBM corporate social responsibility manager, Sherry Wynn, asked for proposals for an MLK Day of Service, I suggested this event because my team had already conducted a full term of virtual teaching in Fall 2020. I knew from that experience it was do-able as a remote event.

Coordinating what we called The MLK Day of Service: BGC Club Hour of Code was important to me for two reasons. I wanted to get BGC kids to work alongside IBM engineers and professionals to solve a challenge in a unique way. And I wanted to get my robotics team volunteers to see that they are not alone in promoting STEM to underrepresented communities; that there are IBM engineers and professionals also willing to volunteer their time for an effort like this.

Tell us about the event itself. What did you do?
For this event, we virtually connected BGC kids with IBM engineers at a more close and personal level—one to two kids per IBM volunteer. The task was to get the students to program a robot for a more realistic mission and then see how the robot performed based on their code and code changes. All the materials were free on Internet.

There were 40 kids between third grade and eleventh grade who signed up from six BGCs. The activity had three levels so we were able to match the kids to a particular level.

The robots were to be programmed to collect garbage and each level had a different aspect to the challenge. For example, at level one the waste is always at the same positions, but at level three the robot must avoid hitting coral to locate and pick-up the garbage.

The event lasted for one and a half hours over Zoom, and the kids spent about 40 to 50 minutes in the breakout rooms with mentors after the main teaching session. There are various hour of code materials and we decided to use the activity released by VEX robotics during Computer Science Education week of 2020. We thought that material was better suited for teaching the same basic robotics concepts, especially the hour of code activity which is nicely framed to be accomplished in an hour!

Who helped you with this?
We had a fantastic team of IBM volunteers, including Rosie Lickorish from the UK who joined at midnight her time. And Jo Ann Hill, who volunteered to mentor and also helped with me coordinate.

We put out the event info on various Slack channels inside of IBM and also posted it as an opportunity in the IBM volunteering and giving portal [login required; IBM-only]. Others shared the opportunity with people in their network from previous volunteer projects. Also, the IBM site manager in Dallas, Gilbert Molinar, included it in his regular communication, which was a big help.

Here are the names of the 11 amazing IBM mentors and volunteers who joined me. A huge thank you to each of them and a special thank you to Sherry Wynn.

  • Rawan AlAghbar
  • Samer Alrimawi
  • Arvind Betrabet
  • Bradena Fowler
  • Jo Ann Hill
  • Rosanna Lickorish
  • Christian Loza
  • Sohini Mukherjee
  • Jayapreetha Natesan
  • Linz Philip
  • Eliza Salkeld

 

Also, two organizations donated USD 650 worth of headsets for the kids to use: ACP and FLYSET. I’m very thankful for their support.

Was there training for the volunteers?
Yes, we conducted a training session for all IBM volunteers so they would be familiar with the programming platform and the three levels of activity. We also created an extensive set of slides to break down the activity for teaching. On the event day, Ellen Sun and Anthony Wang, two students on my robotics team, taught the basics of the activities to everyone in the main Zoom session. In the breakouts, the IBM volunteers helped their mentees use the logic reasoning they had just learned to identify programming blocks and then guided them in debugging by watching the robot’s action and brainstorming what could have gone wrong.

Do you have any success stories from the day?
I got several Slack messages from volunteers boasting about how much garbage their students’ robots collected! I feel each volunteer would say it was a good experience for them and their students.

One of our volunteers, Preetha, mentored a 5th grade girl who was originally assigned to the level one activity. She finished that pretty fast and moved on to level two. By the end of the time, she had almost finished level three, which is normally assigned to grade 8 and above, and had scored the second highest of everyone.

It’s possible we helped that 5th grade girl—and all the kids that day—start a STEM career path.