Gray Middle School girls show off tech skills at Amazon

5/8/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

Only a few computer scientists get a chance to show off their skills at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in downtown Seattle. Four Gray Middle School students can now count themselves among the elite few. 

Four girls from the sixth-grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) class at Gray Middle School accepted an invitation to present a computer app they built at an event to encourage the involvement of women in computer science.

​Elaine Ahfua, Faith Jackson, Jhahaira Guzman
Nguyen (back row l-r) posed with
Amazon employees during their visit and presentation.
Elaine Ahfua, Jhahaira Guzman, Faith Jackson and Vanessa Nguyen traveled with their teacher Phil Schmidt to the Amazon Doppler building, a colorful glass building a few blocks from the Space Needle. At the event, the girls stationed themselves at a booth where they showed interested visitors and Amazon employees the computer app they built using the program Scratch. 

The students built their app about plants. Through the app, users learn how much water and sunlight various plants need and can play a game to see if they can keep their plants alive. 

Yogini Burway, a technical program manager for Amazon Kindle, spoke with the girls about her career at Amazon and watched them demonstrate how to use their app. She left the booth offering rave reviews about how the girls gathered research, wrote a technical paper and designed a user-friendly app.  

“I was super impressed that at this age they have these concepts,” she said. “I think it’s amazing, and they have a really, really bright future ahead in technology.” 

At the event, the Gray students also watched a screening of the movie “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” and participated in a discussion with the director. They learned about the challenges women face in computer science, including lack of mentors. The movie pointed out the need for women in technology due to the varied experiences and perspectives women bring. 

According to a White House report, by 2020 the U.S. will have 1.4 million unfilled computer science jobs in the United States, and experts project that women will fill less than 3 percent of the jobs. 

Gray students left Amazon feeling surprised that so few women work in computer science. The experience inspired them to make a change. 

“Coming to Amazon was really a big honor, especially to show our presentation, our poster-board and our app and to watch the movie,” Jhahaira said. “I actually want to change [things] so more women can come and do engineering.” 

The Gray girls received their invitation to the event from Washington MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Sciences Achievement), a program designed to support students traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields. 

The computer app the student’s designed would not have been possible without the support of voters who approved a $10 million technology levy in 2014 that provides funds for computers and other technology needs for students and teachers. 

To see more projects that students create using school technology, attend the Technology Showcase Night at Gray Middle School on May 25. For more information, contact the Gray Middle School main office at 253-571-5200. 

Watch a video of Elaine Ahfua, Jhahaira Guzman, Faith Jackson and Vanessa Nguyen narrating their experience at Amazon: