Schreyer Scholar helping to nurture young students' interest in STEM

Jeff Rice
November 12, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sydney Gibbard’s parents and teachers helped encourage her interest in science, technology, engineerin, and math. The Penn State biomedical engineering and premedicine student and Schreyer Honors Scholar is now working to help elementary school students develop similar interests and maintain them throughout their lives.

Gibbard is the co-president and founder of Girls Code the World, the domestic nonprofit corporation she created in 2018 with Mina Shokoufandeh, her friend and classmate at The Pennington School in Pennington, New Jersey.

Through in-person and virtual programs, usually held during the summer, Girls Code the World creates specialized STEM curriculums and lesson plans that are designed to supplement their regular classwork. Activities have included coding, constructing walking robots, the study of terrariums, team projects and guest speakers. Girls Code the World has worked with more than 50 girls at seven schools and has a particular interest in working with low-income and underrepresented communities.

“We understand that we’re working with 10-year-old girls who are not going to remember specific coding techniques 10 years from now, but we wanted to get them to be excited about STEM and to be more confident in their classes,” Gibbard said.

Girls Code the World works with girls in grades two through seven, though mostly with grades 3-5. Gibbard said that data has shown that middle school is when many girls begin to lose interest in STEM classes or confidence in their abilities. The programs are designed to establish that confidence before the students reach middle school.

“They’re getting them at that right age, where they can say ‘These are the opportunities that are out there. This is what you can do with this. This is where you can go. These are role models and examples you can learn from who have actually gone there and apply it in your everyday life,’” said Kristen Aballa, a Penn State alumna and teacher at the Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, New Jersey, where Gibbard and Shokoufandeh have worked with her class for the last three years.

Aballa has been impressed with the range of activities for students included in the program — ranging from chemistry demonstrations to 3D printing to swimming — and with Gibbard’s and Shokoufandeh’s ability to adjust on the fly to a virtual space when the coronavirus pandemic prevented in-person programming earlier this year.

Girls Code the World also includes the Aspire Mentoring Program, which matches young students with mentors in high school or college or professionals.

“What we wanted to show (the students) is that the path through STEM is not linear,” Gibbard said. “And it’s very hard for a girl that’s in sixth grade to see themselves as a professor or a doctor, so having different stages of mentors is so important to helping them feel confident through their trajectory of academia.”

Gibbard and Shokoufandeh, currently a student at Tufts University, have been able to use the Penn State network to help expand the program. They received a $15,000 grant from the Summer Founders Program in August and have had their curriculum reviewed by the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and faculty in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Assistant Professor in Engineering Design and Mechanical Design Jessica Menold has advised them on applying for grants, and Amanda Smith, the STEM outreach and engagement liaison at the Center for Science and the Schools, has helped them make connections with Pennsylvania schools.

The next step for Girls Code the World, said Gibbard, is encouraging high school students to take the organization’s curriculum into their own communities and broaden the reach of the programs, which she believes will have a positive effect on the older students as well.

“We are providing high school girls with an opportunity to showcase leadership, and to share their skills with younger girls, and it’s something they can put on their resumes,” Gibbard said. “It’s a great professional experience to make connections with those schools and reach out themselves. I feel that Girls Code the World has really prepared me for so many different kinds of jobs and the work force and I feel like it would be a very beneficial way for a high school student to get that same experience.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

  • Schreyer Scholar and Girls Code the World co-founder Sydney Gibbard

    Sydney Gibbard, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering and premedicine, co-founded Girls Code the World with a high school classmate in 2018.

    IMAGE: Photo provided by Sydney Gibbard
Last Updated November 23, 2020