Crystal Farrell and Rachel Finnegan participate in a virtual reality applications session.

Crystal Farrell, left, and Rachel Finnegan, both eleventh-grade students at Harbor Creek High School, were two participants in a virtual reality applications session, part of the first Women in Computing Day, held March 24 at Penn State Behrend.

Image: Penn State Behrend

Goggles on, girls enjoy (virtual) trip to New York City

Twenty students attend first Women in Computing Day at Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Crystal Farrell and Rachel Finnegan knew they were going on a field trip. They just didn’t know they’d end up in the “Big Apple.”

“We put the goggles on and then suddenly, we were in New York City and there were people talking to you,” said Farrell, an 11th-grade student at Harbor Creek High School. “You could even look all around as they were talking to you.”

She and Finnegan participated in a virtual-reality, applications session as part of the first Women in Computing Day, held March 24 at Penn State Behrend. Twenty girls from Harbor Creek High School and Chautauqua Lake Secondary School participated in the program, which was designed to expose them to careers that are made possible by majoring in computing or information technology.

“What’s interesting about computing is that some of the first programming languages that were created were made by women, but then it tapered off,” said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach at Penn State Behrend. “Jobs for computing and information technology majors are also expected to grow at an average of 30 percent over the next several years, so that’s another reason why we really want to expose young girls to these career fields.”

The daylong program was co-sponsored by Erie Insurance, which coordinated a session that introduced participants to coding. The day’s final session explored Penn State Behrend’s digital media, arts and technology major, designed to meet the growing employer demand for professionals capable of both critical analysis and creative production of digital media.

In the virtual reality applications session, participants were transported into different parts of the world by using VR goggles. Within seconds, they could be standing in Times Square, viewing the Statue of Liberty or checking out any other famous New York City landmark.

“I didn’t know we’d be doing this at all, and it’s exciting,” said Finnegan, also an 11th-grade student at Harbor Creek High School. “This is part of what the future is becoming. Before, it was cellphones, then iPhones and now it’s virtual reality. It’s just so realistic. It’s like you’re living in that moment.”

The exercise was designed to show students the rapid pace at which technology is evolving.

“There are so many business applications out there for technology, but students might not immediately make the connection,” said Scott McAuley, a lecturer in management information systems who led the session. “We’re showing them what a systems analyst can do, which is basically when you bring technology to a business to solve their problem.”

Jess Fortney, an IT analyst at Erie Insurance, volunteered at Women in Computing Day and helped lead the coding session. The program was a resonant cause for Fortney, and the Chautauqua Lake Secondary School alumna was happy to see her alma mater in attendance.

“When I was in high school, I was not exposed to a lot of this, but it would have been so helpful,” Fortney said. “I had to wait to college to really learn that I wanted to do this, but if young girls are able to gain exposure to this, it’s just such a great benefit. It’s really cool to see my old school here. I’d love to see more schools do this.”


Steve Orbanek

Marketing Communications Coordinator, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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