Teen seeks to ‘spark’ girls’ STEM interest

Seventh grade girls from Ballston Spa and Niskayuna work together in a team-building challenge. Photo by Rebecca IsenhartSeventh grade girls from Ballston Spa and Niskayuna work together in a team-building challenge. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Middle-schoolers hear from Shaker senior at Girls Inc. summit

Gili Rusak, a senior at Shaker High School, gave the keynote speech and led coding workshops at the summit Thursday. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Gili Rusak, a senior at Shaker High School, gave the keynote speech and led coding workshops at the summit Thursday. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

MALTA — Gili Rusak faced a sea of 110 seventh-grade girls Dec. 18 at the annual Girls Inc. summit at Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART campus in Malta.

The entire audience wore matching T-shirts with messages such as “Rocket Scientists Rock” and “Deep Thinker.” Rusak, the event’s keynote speaker, did her best to inspire them.

“Encouraging girls is very important,” she said.

The summit’s organizers thought Rusak would make a good role model for the attendees. Her extensive resume of accomplishments includes launching her own educational app that teaches people how to code; two awards from the National Center for Women and Information Technology; and stints as a visiting researcher at both Siena College and Stanford University.

Oh, and one more thing: Rusak is 17 years old, a senior at Shaker High School.

“I was preparing my speech in the midst of college applications,” Rusak said.

In her address, she talked to the middle-schoolers about pursuing their interests.

“They need to find their passion or their spark,” Rusak said. “They can go out there and make something.”

Ashley Jeffrey Bouck, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Greater Capital Region, said Rusak’s speech was everything she hoped for.

“Why does it have to be a fancy adult doing the keynote speech?” Jeffrey Bouck said. “All these girls are looking at her like, ‘Wow, I can do this too.’ ”

That’s the ultimate goal of the summit: connecting girls with their own potential. Jeffrey Bouck said that message is especially important for the middle-school age group, which is why seventh-grade girls get the invitations each year. The science and math coordinators from their schools select girls to attend based on enthusiasm, rather than ability.

“They may be on the cusp of losing interest,” she said. “The research shows they start to lose interest because it gets hard.”

Seventh grade girls from Ballston Spa and Niskayuna work together in a team-building challenge. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Seventh grade girls from Ballston Spa and Niskayuna work together in a team-building challenge. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

It’s also the time in girls’ lives when they start to care more about their appearances and reputations, and Jeffrey Bouck said concerns about seeming nerdy can sometimes push girls out of science and math, too. But by connecting girls interested in STEM fields with mentors, like-minded peers and role models, Girls Inc. hopes to help them stay on track.

It certainly worked for Katy Aldous, a Niskayuna student who deeply admires Rusak.

“I think it’s really cool that she’s a senior in high school and she made an app,” Aldous said.

She’s done some coding in the past, and even created a game, but meeting Rusak and attending workshops throughout the day inspired her to push herself further.

“I’ve had experience making simple games, but I haven’t made anything complex,” she said.

Aldous said her next project would be even more challenging.

Shivani Singh, also a Niskayuna student, said she was excited to learn she had something in common with Rusak.

“She did Math Counts [club], which I do,” Singh said.

All the girls had the opportunity to try out Rusak’s app, a free educational program called Codester. Singh said the experience made her feel capable of doing more with code.

“It didn’t really seem like code,” she said. “It was more like a game.”

During a workshop after lunch, Niskayuna students Josie Canestrari and Risa Iromowitz worked to move through the levels of Rusak’s app.

“It’s simpler than you would think,” Iromowitz said. She had tried some coding before, but said her experience at the summit changed her perspective.

“I never really thought about it like this,” she said. “It’s cool to see how anybody can do it.”

As Canestrari watched Rusak wander around the room and provide hints to her proteges, she considered creating something herself.

“It seems really fun,” she said. “I think it would be cool to play my own game that I made.”

Josie Canestrari, left, and Risa Iromowitz, both students at Iroquois Middle School, work together to complete a level of the Codester app. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Josie Canestrari, left, and Risa Iromowitz, both students at Iroquois Middle School, work together to complete a level of the Codester app. Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Mingling with middle-schoolers at the summit reminded Rusak of an experience that set her on the path she’s currently blazing. In elementary and middle school, she joined the Albany Area Math Circle and met teenagers who were building their own programs and experimenting with technology in ways that piqued her interest.

“I was like, whoa, these kids aren’t much older than me,” Rusak said.

Since then, her own creations and projects have brought her to a variety of interesting places, including a trip overseas to the headquarters of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. She hoped the girls she met would later tell a similar story: that meeting someone so close to their age inspired them to embrace their intellectual interests.

“It doesn’t make you a nerd,” Rusak said. “It makes you stand out.”

Rusak and Jeffrey Bouck, who is 32 and graduated from Siena’s pre-med program in 2004, agreed that neither had felt discriminated against as women in technical fields.

Still, Jeffrey Bouck said, it’s important to focus on young women as long as the balance of employees in technical fields skews toward men.

“Women still only represent 25 percent in the STEM fields,” she said. “They’re still underrepresented.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.