Jessica Haley: Business major, robot programmer inspires girls

Erica Martin

A business administration major turned robot programmer is offering her skills to inspire the next generation of women to reach for their dreams.

Jessica Haley works as a student programmer with FSU Panama City’s STEM Institute, touring area classrooms with humanoid robots Sam E. Nole and Wally Nole. Now, with interim STEM Institute director John Smith, Ph.D., B.C.E., and student programmers Dalton Bohning and Emily Hennesy, she is working to develop a local chapter of Girls Who Code. The group aims to spark interest among young girls in the typically male-dominated field of computer science

“Getting one group of girls together can go far,” Haley said. “All it takes is a few talking among friends and you have the domino effect.”

Using fun, collaborative projects, Girls Who Code is a national organization that equips sixth- to 12th-grade girls with technical skills that will provide a foundation for a future in technology. The FSU Panama City chapter will work with Girls Inc., ASAP and other local organizations to help close the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

“We need more women in technology,” said Hennesy, a computer science major. “Having a girls-only group will encourage girls to take the lead in STEM and get excited about learning traditionally ‘male-oriented’ subjects.”

“The big picture is to get them thinking that they can do whatever they want,” Haley said.

According to the Girls Who Code website, 1.4 million jobs will be available in computing-related fields by 2020. Only 3 percent of those jobs are expected to be filled by women educated in the U.S.

“Girls are largely underrepresented in the highly lucrative business of computer science,” said Smith, who initially brought the idea for Girls Who Code to FSU Panama City. “Capturing their interest early on is one way to change this scenario.”

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Haley’s interest in coding was sparked by conversations with fellow programmer Hennesy. The two met in a business communication class and quickly hatched a plan to use robots to interact with and teach English as a Second Language (EASL) students.

Hennesy taught Haley basic coding, and they put the idea to the test. The STEM Institute now has Spanish and French programs.

“Once people see programming as not something just for ‘smart people’ or ‘computer nerds,’ they love it,” Hennesy said. “It empowers you to create something from nothing.”

“The way [coding] is utilized is quite incredible, and it’s what got me hooked,” Haley said.

Since working with the STEM Institute’s robots, Haley has learned coding structures, loop patterns and the robots’ module integration. She now tours classrooms and organizations with her own codes.

She said her business education and her experience working with children — both of Haley’s parents are FSU Panama City alumni and work in education — have reinforced her role with the STEM Institute.

“It widens my perspective of everything that you can do by touching on different majors,” Haley said. “Computer science itself can be included in any arena.”

Haley also is the pending vice president for the Black Student Union, the secretary of the Association for Computing Machinery and the chairwoman for the Student Government Council’s Student Wellness & Development Committee.

“Campus involvement helped me blossom,” she said. “That’s mainly how I felt like I got connected. You find out more about campus instead of just going to and from class.”

After graduating in 2016, Haley hopes to continue to earn a master’s degree in international affairs.

Girls Who Code will meet 4-6 p.m. Fridays beginning Sept. 25 at FSU Panama City. For more information about Girls Who Code or to learn about working with the STEM Institute, contact interim STEM Institute director John Smith at 850-770-2260 or jsmith@pc.fsu.edu.

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