Ridgefielder Becca Cohen tackles gender gap with bananas and Pac-Man
Becca Cohen’s plan to inspire adolescent girls to pursue careers in computer science and physics involves a laptop computer, a circuit board called the “Makey Makey,” and a few pieces of fruit.
The 17-year-old Ridgefield High School junior said she hooked the $50 circuit board up to a computer, and then wired electrical clamps to bananas — the fluids inside the fruit conduct electricity — so that students at the Scotland Elementary School science fair could literally handle the fruit to control a computer program.
“The kids played Pac-Man on the computer using bananas as the up and down arrows,” Cohen told The Press during a phone call on Saturday, March 31.
The fruit-ninja antics had a point beyond the simple “wow factor.” Cohen has been using the kid-friendly Makey Makey device to work with students in both the Ridgefield and Danbury school systems, all to help young girls imagine careers in both politics and STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
She’s undertaking the project to achieve her Gold Award with the Girl Scouts — Troop 50163. Cohen said Tuesday, April 3, that the project had been approved by the Girl Scout Council, earning her the Gold Award.
Cohen said she has done demonstrations at Rogers Park and Broadview middle schools in Danbury, as well as Scotts Ridge.
She also developed a lesson plan with her former middle school teacher to educate middle school-age students about the relative lack of women who pursue careers in politics, and to have the students come up with possible solutions.
“The eighth grade students discussed the different causes why women chose not to go into political careers,” she said.
Cohen said she decided to focus primarily on middle school students because her research suggested that is the age students become exposed to bias based on gender.
Tom Broderick, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Scotts Ridge Middle School who helped develop the program to be engaging for middle school ages, called Cohen a professional worker.
“If we made a to-do list, her portions were completed thoroughly, and if we set up a meeting, she was always early,” he said. “Most importantly, the ideas and execution were all led by her — my only role was to provide advice about middle school students’ readiness level and the structure of a lesson.”
Broderick taught Cohen when she was at Scotts Ridge five years ago. She completed one of her presentations to students in his classroom.
He said it is challenging to develop a 48-minute lesson that will engage middle school students.
“Ultimately, she developed an organized, coherent project with concise objectives and activities. It’s also no small task to have the courage to present to a group of students, and she managed it very well,” he added.
Cohen said she’s undertaking the project to achieve her Gold Award with the Girl Scouts — the highest award a Girl Scout can achieve. Cohen compared the award to the Boy Scouts’ ‘Eagle Scout’ badge.
Those who try to achieve the award must undertake a project to benefit their community, and it can’t be a group effort. “You have to prove that you were the leader of the project and that you took the initiative,” Cohen said.
“Basically I was looking at the Gold Award and thinking about ideas that I’m passionate about,” she said. “I’ve always been passionate about the idea that people should be represented.” That means women — half the population — should have an equal say in the laws and policies that affect their lives, Cohen said.
“Women are grossly underrepresented in politics and STEM,” Cohen said. She explained that she was inspired to pursue the project after reading the book The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club, by novelist Eileen Pollack.
“The expectation is that women go into softer fields” and run households, Cohen said, which “leads to the stereotype that girls aren’t good at science.”
To get the award, Cohen has to document 80 hours of time spent on the project, most of which she has completed already.
Next up? She’ll be helping to host a coding program for girls ages 10 to 18 at the Danbury Library Monday, April 9, which is put together by Patricia Gans of the nonprofit Random Hacks of Kindness Jr.
Admission is free, but those who want to enter will have to register on the library’s website in advance.
Cohen said she’s also in contact with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to develop a national science contest for middle school girls, who would answer such questions as “How could we reduce fuel usage on airplanes?”
The girls who won would have the opportunity to present their research at the college level, Cohen said.
She added that the response from the students she worked with has been positive.
“Even at my first political session, there was one girl who mentioned, ‘I learned so much, I think I want to go into this field,’” she said.