Published: Aug. 8, 2017
Marley shows the bride and groom she made from styrofoam cups and pipe cleaners.
Participants of the Girls on Fire camp sit on the floor while using cellphones and lap tops to program their characters.

Dressed in a black bowtie, a purple and blue-haired groom sings to his bride. The groom’s curly-haired bride then sweetly sings back while guests politely listen.

Under the wedding arch, lit by blinking rainbow lights, a white cat wags his tail as he reads the couple their vows: “Do you, Fred, take Celery as your wife?”

“I had the idea to have a fake, funny wedding, and everyone got super excited and made their own characters,” says Marley Santos, 13, an eighth-grader from Casey Middle School.

Marley and 11 other students are participating in Girls on Fire, a five-day camp that teaches middle school girls, especially those from low-income families, to write code and work with electronics. Held at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, the event is sponsored by the ATLAS Laboratory for Playful Computation (LPC), the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the National Science Foundation, and CU Science Discovery program.

With the help of BBC Micro:bits—pocket-sized microcontrollers designed to make programming fun and easy for the uninitiated—three girls wrote the code that connects their cellphones to the LED lights, the cat’s tail and the sound for the couple’s songs. They also created the bride, groom and wedding party from styrofoam cups decorated with colorful pipe cleaners, felt and various accessories.

Kari Santos, an Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) graduate student with 25 years of software engineering experience, developed the class in partnership with Ben Shapiro, director of the LPC. Santos, who is also Marley’s mother, wants to give young girls the opportunity to enter science and technology. She started programming in high school after a teacher encouraged her to sign up for a one-week Intro to Engineering program for women at Carnegie Mellon University.

After that she decided to become an engineer, says Santos. “But certainly all through college and at every job, I was a minority. For many of my college classes, it was all men and me.”

In the first year of Girls on Fire, Santos taught programming with micro:bits separately from programming phone apps using App Inventor. Since then, she’s written software that connects the technologies over Bluetooth, making the process more seamless.  One of the “wedding programmers,” 12-year-old Anastasia Martinez, said she didn’t know anything about coding before she attended Girls on Fire, and she didn’t think she would enjoy the camp.

“My brother was into programming and programming just didn’t sound interesting to me,”  Anastasia says.  “My mom encouraged me to go to Girls on Fire. I ended up liking it. I learned a lot, and I am ready to learn more."