Girls take on robots, NASA at Milford’s Platt Tech

MILFORD — Exposing students to all 12 trades available at Platt Technical High School leads to students making potential career choices they never would have considered, according to Principal David Telesca.

As a result, the school recently received the College Board’s AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award for its high number of girls in the traditionally male-dominated IT program, Telesca said. Specifically, the award cites the schools AP Computer Science Principles program.

“Some of our shops, that would be considered traditionally male shops, many of our girls find it’s very engaging and we end up having more female representation that might be in a traditional shop, and IT is one of those,” Telesca said. “The reason we have a lot of female representation in the AP exam is because we have a lot of female representation in the shop.”

Juniors Aurelie Elias and Bridgette Nealy spend their shop time coding robots and working with NASA engineers.

Elias said she enjoys the automation aspects, and problem-solving side of information technology.

“I like working on projects and figuring out problems, and I also like when classmates ask me to help them with their code,” she said. “This school gave me the resources and environment to figure out this is what I want to do. Because before I had an interest and now I have an actual passion for it because of being there every day for a couple of weeks and doing projects and having the help that I have.”

Nealy is participating in the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) program. She is working on a graphical user interface (GUI) design for an experiment that will go into the space station.

“NASA does experiments in space with agriculture, fungi and crystals and more, and they want to use this user interface to take pictures and see the results as they progress,” she said.

Ed Martinez, IT instructor, said he was surprised when he was notified the school had received the award.

“One of my ultimate goals in IT is to get more women into the field,” he said. “I pride myself in having a diverse shop as possible, and I make sure everyone is going to be on an equitable level.”

What got Nealy interested in the IT trade was a stoplight project she did freshman year where students had to use a Raspberry Pi to illuminate traffic signals.

“When I got the lights to light up because of the program I was using on the computer, it was really cool because I was doing it, I was programming it, and I was making it light up different colors,” she said. “It was me doing it, and it felt like an accomplishment. So then, as I started to get more into in my second year, that’s where I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

One of the projects where Elias used her coding and problem-solving skills was when she and Nealy worked on an autonomous programmable “Nao” robot the school uses as a way to get freshmen interested in the IT trade.

Coming into Platt Tech as freshmen, Elias and Nealy were both interested in the culinary trade. But their experience in the IT trade classes had them hooked.

Thomas Viola, IT department head, said he is always trying to let students know there is an opportunity for everyone, and it’s not just male-dominated, even if it looks like that from the outside.

“When we talk about computing, some of my best students have been female,” said Viola.

Viola said they are in competition with schools across the country who are working on the same project.

“We actually have three teams working on it with three young ladies in each of the teams,” he said.

Martinez said the it was difficult to say how to get more girls involved in technological fields, but it’s essential to get everyone involved.

Viola said simply exposing students to various trades was key.

“I think our strength in the tech school is the hands-on approach,” said Viola. “When you sit down next to a young person, and you show them how to actually do it, whether they are under a real car changing the oil, firing up a machine and creating a part or sitting in front of one of our computers and turning on lights, they are doing the work themselves, and when they get that success, it’s really cool.”