This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer with the foundation, Her Spark, based locally in Raleigh Research Triangle Park. It’s mission is to give high school girls the skills and tools they need to succeed in a world where careers in STEM are growing exponentially.

Fourteen girls attended a week-long camp filled with activities to excite, challenge, and expose them to some of the many things that are possible with technology. They learned about Cisco Design Thinking and were able to apply this thinking by developing their own app on the Thunkable platform.

The girls also  took a field trip to Cisco’s RTP Campus. Sarah Maher, an intern in the Global Technical Assistance Center (TAC), and I gave an introduction to Python presentation during their visit. We broke down what Python is, what programming is, what it is useful for, and the details about the language. I presented on Boolean values, strings, floats, and gave an overview of functions and libraries. For each new topic, we gave live demos and examples of real-life situations and activities that they would be completing later in the day.


Together we built Raspberry Pi robots, also known as “PiBots.” The PiBot was a car that could be controlled by written code on the Raspberry Pi, moving forward, backward, and turn at any specified speed. Sensors were attached to the sides of the body, which would indicate whether or not the PiBot was on top of our single black line track made from electrical tape.

The girls would use the information we taught them about Python and their PiBots to help them in their next activity, a zombie apocalypse escape room. (It was so cool!) They needed to escape the room before the half zombie/half humans went to full brain-eating zombie mode (within an hour). It was up to the girls to find the key to escape the room. We set up two adjoining conference rooms with the sliding wall barrier closed. The trick was that the key that each team needed was in the other team’s room. After solving some math problems and lots of riddles, the girls had to figure out how to edit the code they were given to get the PiBots to run. The wall slightly opened, just big enough for a PiBot to fit through on a black line track! They swapped keys, and successfully escaped the half zombie/half humans in time. We enjoyed hearing them working together and laughing from the other room. They were rewarded with a giant pizza lunch, yum!

I had the opportunity to talk with Her Spark organizer Shannon Ralich. From previous volunteering experiences at STEM camps, I have seen a difference in how middle school and high school students prefer to work. Middle school students tended to work together with more of a group mindset, while high school students worked more independently. However, this was not the case with these girls, which surprised both of us. In the feedback sessions with the girls, Shannon said that they actually liked the group work and ice-breakers more. Coming from someone who loathes group projects, it’s great that the girls actually enjoy it and want to work together. It’s important to be able to work both individually and on a team, an idea that the camp also highlights.

I can definitely see Her Spark growing significantly within the next few years. Shannon talked of having camps like these devoted to different topics, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science. Being from the Security & Trust Organization, I suggested cybersecurity would be another great topic, and she added it to her list. Her Spark plans to hold camps and workshops throughout the school year, taking place both after-school and on the weekends. The main goal is to keep these girls interested and coming back to learn more!

The organization is also working to create a platform where girls can reach out with questions about their projects or share their experiences with camps such as these. Shannon said the biggest obstacle for many girls learning these topics on their own was that they didn’t really have anyone to answer their questions, or they didn’t know where to go. Having a place to ask questions and get advice from other girls and women who program is an invaluable resource for someone just starting their cyber journey.

I had an absolutely amazing time working with Shannon, Sarah, and Chris , and everyone else on the team from Cisco to set up this event. Most importantly, the girls had a fun and interactive experience learning about what can be achieved through technology and STEM. These are the bright young minds of the future!

Learn more at www.cisco.com/go/bridgethegap 


Kylie Pleakis

Data Science Master’s Intern

Security and Trust Organization