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Regional Interests

Oregon high schoolers dream big with tech

How can technology be more accessible? What does the future of robotics look like? These are some of the questions on the minds of Caroline Gao, a junior at West Albany High School and Pauline Petersen, a senior at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego. They have received regional and national recognition from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. They join us with details on how they plan to use their skills to make technology more accessible.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: We [have] today two award-winning Oregon high school students. Caroline Gao is going to be a junior at West Albany High School and Pauline Petersen is going to be a senior at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego. They are both 2021 Honorary Mention winners for the National Center for Women and Information Technologies Aspirations in Computing Awards. The awards are given out every year in recognition of computing, experienced leadership and tenacity. Congratulations. It’s great to have both of you on the show. How did you become passionate about computer science and robotics?

Pauline Petersen: It actually started in middle school. I signed up for a robotics class that was offered and I walked in the room and I was actually the only girl. There was 25 other guys. [That] was pretty crazy but the teacher was a woman, which was a great role model for that class. It really captured my interest because we were able to put this code together and have these lego robots moving around to what we coded. So if we clap our hands five times the robot will move forward. Or if we built a little obstacle course then the robot is able to maneuver around it. And I just thought that was so interesting and have just continued with Tech since then.

Miller: What’s kept you excited about it?

Petersen: I like the creativity of it. If you have an idea you can basically build whatever you want. Like if you want a robot that can spell out your name, you can actually create that and design it. And it just takes a little bit of Googling and talking to people to figure out what you want to do.

Miller: When you walked into that room and there were 25 guys and you. What went through your mind?

Petersen: It kind of seemed at first like I didn’t really belong in the class. It’s like, am I supposed to be in here? But then I realized I am. This is so interesting and talking to the other people in the class, it was like, we’re all interested in the same thing. It was a great experience and [I] learned from it because it’s like that everywhere.

Miller: How did you get interested in technology and computer science?

Caroline Gao: All my life, everything about my life has kind of revolved around or been facilitated through technology since being born. So I think there’s just this general awareness I had of technology and how it was playing an increasing role in every part of our lives, in the news [and] in politics. But I actually don’t think I got my real first exposure to technology until last summer when I did an internship at Oregon State University with Dr. Margaret Burnett and researched human-computer interaction. So [we were] looking at the intersection between psychology, computer science and socioeconomic status. We looked at different barriers to access that different socioeconomic status groups have to technology and how we can facilitate or access technology to all socioeconomic statuses. That was really how I developed my passion for technology. I think because it was my first realization of how directly technology could improve society for people who need it the most.

Miller: What are examples of the inequities that you saw that were either created by technology or not helped by technology that you’d like to address?

Gao: The way I think of it is really more that technology increasingly in the future is the foundation of all society. It’s how we access our education. It’s how we access jobs, how we access communication with peers and people from different parts of the world. And basically without access to technology, people can’t access the world. So the way we were looking at it and the way that I still think about it too is that, at a foundational level, people of all socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds need access to technology. And from technology, we can actually get more access to various other resources in society. But things like class, things like not having the money to afford high access high-speed internet, [living in] rural areas, racial divides are just demographic divides. For me, [the priority is] the idea of getting people from all backgrounds technologically literate and getting access to technology.

Miller: How much did the last year and a half ‚with so much school and work and socializing online, affect the way you think about technology’s roles in our lives?

Gao: Honestly, I think it’s totally transformed how I think about technology in many [positive]ways for me because I was lucky enough to have high-speed internet at home and have a laptop. So I’ve actually been able to facilitate some really extraordinary opportunities and form some relationships I don’t think I would have been able to form without the help of technology. Like for example, running a culture camp for kids where kids from all across the country could learn about a different culture every day through zoom, allowing kids to meet people from different countries who they otherwise might not have interacted with. For me, getting to form friendships with people from different countries and states were all opportunities that were facilitated through technology and really made me realize just how critical technology is going to be to all the relationships we form in the future.

Miller: I should note the other national Honorable Mention winners from our listening area were recognized by the National Center for Women and Information Technologies 2021 Aspirations in Computing Awards. They are Maggie Bao, Grace Chen and Oria Weng from Portland, Audrey Au from Corvallis and Ashley Lin from Vancouver. What did it mean to you to get this award Pauline?

Petersen: I thought it was really meaningful to get this award as I’ve just been trying to inspire other girls to get into technology. So to get this award and get the recognition really means a lot to kind of stand out as a role model for other girls in technology. And so I like the aspect of it, of people being able to say, ‘wow, this is something I can do as well.’

Miller: If I’m not mistaken, you actually teach coding right now through the Portland Girls Who Code Club. Have you heard younger girls saying that they don’t think coding is for them, that they’ve gotten the message that this is a boy’s world?

Petersen: Definitely. It’s happened far too many times than I like. It’s interesting because a lot of girls think, ‘I’m not a computer person’ or ‘oh I’m not an engineer because blah blah blah’. But really it’s because they think coding is just numbers and equations. But it’s really just a way to output creative thinking and you really have to go into a class and have this hands-on experience to see that this is really interesting. You can make this robot draw something or you can do web design and create your own websites or you can be working hands-on building these robots and competitions. I feel like people make assumptions way too soon instead of actually taking the step to take a class.

Miller: What’s a tech problem that you’re excited to be grappling with right now?

Petersen: There’s a couple. But right now I’m on a high school robotics team [called] Error Code Zero. Let’s see, the main problem we’re having right now is trying to fix a problem called a climber on the robot. It lifts this 100lb.+ robot onto this metal bar. It’s like doing a pull-up. It’s pretty crazy. But the problem right now is that it’s disconnected. So when I go back to robotics, which is at the high school, I’ll be helping [to figure out what’s going wrong and figure out how to make it lift], wire it and put it back together and hope it works and lifts the whole 100lb. robot off the ground.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting