December 06, 2019
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New program encourages girls to create interactive art

Community Author: Joshua Archer
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A partnership between local art centers and the Maine Math and Science Alliance brought Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programming to teenage girls again this past summer and the program’s participants recently had the opportunity to showcase their work.

The Augmented Reality Girls, otherwise known as AR Girls, is a National Science Foundation funded research project spearheaded by the alliance over the past two years and is designed to support teenage girls with an interest in art in developing science communication skills through digital interactive art.

Girls recently displayed their digital creations at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Fiddlehead Arts in Gray and Wintergreen Arts in Presque Isle.

“We used a program that helps you code a game and I discovered the fact that I'm actually really good at  programming,” said Ava Powers, AR Girls participant at the Wintergreen Arts Center.

Powers and her team member Diane Botting, both 12-years-olds from Aroostook County, met for the first time in the program earlier this year and worked together over the summer to create a game centered around community health.

“I love technology and I’ve always wanted to create my own sort of little game,” Botting said. “My strength was mainly dialogue because I write a lot of stories so doing the dialogue was fairly easy for me to do as well as creating some of the characters personalities and designs.”

Both girls enjoyed the program and plan to take it again next year.

In July, the Wintergreen Arts Center AR Girls worked with two community partners, Trena Soucy, a scientist and biology instructor at the Northern Maine Community College, and Kim Smith, resource development and public information officer for the City of Presque Isle, who served as experts and mentors for the girls.

“One of my responsibilities was to bring some real life information to the art that the girls were creating and give their games an educational component for them to learn about issues in the community,” Soucy said.

“These girls are all artists, they have amazing artistic ability, so to see them learn a new digital platform as a delivery method was really cool,” Soucy said. “There’s a lot of talk right now about changing the STEM acronym to STEAM, adding “A”  for art, and art has been shown to be critical to the development of STEM.”

Phelan Gallagher, technology education specialist with Maine Math and Science Alliance, joined the program this spring and spent several weeks throughout the summer travelling to each site to support and facilitate the program and work with art educators to deliver the curriculum to the girls.

Gallagher said the program encourages the girls to identify as artists as well as leaving room for identifying as scientists.

“It’s a really unique and innovative idea to say to a bunch of young art inclined people that science needs help communicating ideas and you guys are the storytellers, the creators, the artists who are the ones who are going to help translate these important concepts to the public,” Gallagher said.

Kelly Riedinger, senior researcher at the center for research on lifelong STEM learning at Oregon State University, spent time over the summer observing and collecting data from the girls and art educators about their experience in the program through surveys and interviews to better see what support they would need to continue offering the program.

“The grant was generally designed to use what we call a stealth science approach with the idea being that we recruit and leverage girls interested in art to introduce them to science and in this case environmental issues,” Riedinger said.

The data collected will help researchers understand and evaluate how to improve the program and understand how the girls come to be aware of careers in technology and if they see themselves as confident or capable of doing, communicating and engaging with technology, Riedinger said.

Augmented Reality is a contemporary mode of interactive storytelling in which a computer or mobile device is employed to blend real-life and digital content.

The AR Girls project is the first of its kind in the nation aimed at increasing the participation of girls in STEM careers by empowering them to design Augmented Reality to communicate topics that are important to them and their community. AR Girls is a collaboration of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin: Madison, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program.