Passion Project: Alumni Develop Community Bots Program to Prepare Young Women for Careers in STEM Fields

Jack Cooley

Jack Cooley, The Community Bots co-founder shares with SmartBrief five ways that an online coding program has helped teach STEM to girls in the classroom, remotely, and around the world.

Alumni Jack Cooley ‘96MS and Bob Hall ‘95MS are on a mission to empower young women across the world. As co-founder and board member of The Community Bots, a nonprofit organization that provides training and equipment in STEM robotics for young women and their teachers in underserved communities, they are seeking to develop the next generation of engineers and scientists – no matter their circumstances.

“We feel like we need to develop pathways,” says Cooley, who earned his master’s degree in Nutrition from UMass Amherst. “When the girls we serve ultimately go into STEM fields, they will go back to mentor younger girls. That will turn into relationship building, which will turn into careers, and even building their own companies.”

After working in international development, Cooley joined several public relations firms focused on pharmaceutical products. The work left him unfulfilled, however, and he soon made a life-altering career choice—he landed a job as a science and engineering teacher. It was here that he developed a passion for STEM and robotics.

“I was often told that I would be a great school teacher since I had done a lot of community education in college and while working in international development,” he explains. “I decided to give teaching a try for one school year, and I am still an administrator and teacher 25 years later.”Community bots students

The inspiration for The Community Bots began when Cooley was coaching a robotics team at The Chapin School, an all-girls school in New York City. He noticed the gender gap among the teams competing and wanted to find ways to involve more girls in robotics and other STEM fields. As time went on, the robotics equipment the school was using became outdated and replaced by newer equipment. Not wanting to throw out and waste the older robots, Cooley set out to find a way to donate them.

“At the school we had a guest speaker from MIT,” explains Cooley. “She talked about the power of giving girls in early middle school positive experiences in tech. She also said that mentoring is critical in order to bridge the STEM gap in the future. Her words were so powerful. That was the spark. That’s when we knew we had to do something with the equipment.”

Community bots robotsCooley partnered with Ana Agón, a Spanish language teacher and early childhood educator who shared a background in technology and Cooley’s passion for global education and social justice, to found The Community Bots. Together, they recruited a board of directors to help grow their passion project. Cooley thought of Bob Hall, a friend since their time at Amherst together, and invited him to join the board and to administer the board’s data collection.

When asked why he chose to join the team, Hall’s answer is simple. “This is a great opportunity to give back to the community.”

With a master’s degree in epidemiology from UMass Amherst and years of experience working for the Veteran Affairs Boston Healthcare System as an informatics/data analytics scientist, Hall was a perfect organizational fit. He has helped to guide the student and teacher survey analysis since the project’s second year. He brings with him experience employing Artificial Intelligence in medical research to improve health outcomes for veterans as well as years of experience in public health, epidemiology, medical writing, and data analytics that support research innovation in healthcare.

“We want to level the playing field,” explains Hall. “We want to expose these girls to STEM, robotics, and programming so they can take those skills and continue to grow and develop them and use them to get into higher education. We want to empower these young women to get into the tech sector. We know that is an area that is growing with AI and data analytics.”

Community bots group

Since 2016, The Community Bots program has trained 500 young female engineers, donated 200 refurbished laptops and 80,000 LEGO pieces and ancillary LEGO robotics equipment, trained 100 teachers to run STEM-robotics programs, and established continuing programs in four countries (Colombia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua) and established a pilot program in a fifth (Spain). The Community Bots will introduce their program to schools in the United States next. They will launch their program at The Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City in summer 2024.

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