By Jocelyn Rowley 

Niwot student wins national technology award


February 22, 2018

Niwot senior Michelle Tran was just one of 41 students nationwide to receive the 2018 Award for Aspirations in Computing from National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

For recognition of her efforts in technology education and outreach, the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) has selected Niwot senior Michelle Tran to receive the 2018 Award for Aspirations in Computing.

Every year, NCWIT recognizes high school women “for their demonstrated interest and achievements in computing, proven leadership ability, academic performance, and plans for post‑secondary education.” Tran was one of just 41 students selected out of 3,600 applicants nationwide, and was the only recipient from Colorado.

Tran will receive a $500 scholarship, and will be honored at a ceremony next month in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“What impressed me was her dedication to sharing her love of technology with younger students, particularly those who do not have the opportunities at home or at school to experience technology,” NCWIT’s director Edie Cheng wrote in an email. “Added to that, she also is pursuing real-world research projects with her robotics team and excelling as a student.”

Tran’s passion for tech and computing didn’t begin particularly early in life, but she’s made up for lost time in the few years since. An admitted technophobe as a preteen, Tran joined her middle school robotics club seeking to close significant gaps in her technological knowledge.

“I’m one of those fanatics that always has to improve,” Tran said. “I was very technologically incompetent, so that’s why I decided to get involved with something that uses technology. It was a great experience.

Tran became “enamored” with technology once she realized how broad its potential applications are. Eventually, she discovered a particular talent for coding and software programming.

“I’ve always loved problem solving,” she said. “When I found out coding is all about problem solving, I was totally down for it.”

Tran’s passion for IT led her to the St. Vrain Valley School District’s (SVVSD) Innovation Center, which opened during her freshman year at Niwot. The Center, located near the CDC campus on Sunset Street, provides interested students with opportunities to “apply their STEM knowledge to real world projects,” according to the website. For Tran, who holds one of the paid positions at the Center, the experience she’s gained while working there has proven invaluable.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to get hands-on education in an environment that’s true to life,” she said. “It’s real-life application, and real-life work.”

Tran and a team from the Center are currently working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on Project Canary to enhance drones for use in a microclimate study. Tran’s role is to develop an Android application that will transmit data wirelessly from sensors on the drone to an online NCAR database. She is also involved in a project to “develop an original remotely operated vehicle for Boulder County to use for habitat research,” according to her impressive resume.

Tran is also deeply involved in the Center’s outreach efforts to elementary and middle school students, particularly through its robotics initiatives. She is an active member of the Center’s STEM Curriculum Development Team, which integrates technology into other disciplines in SVVSD schools.

Perhaps the most notable of her myriad of pursuits are her efforts to mentor young girls in robotics and computing. Despite efforts to increase the participation of women in technological and computing fields, both Tran and Cheng agreed that the gender disparity stubbornly persists, even among students.

“I believe the rate of women pursuing computing degrees as undergraduates (one of our key indicators) has been consistently hovering around 18% for several years now,” Cheng said. “However we do see individual institutions that are NCWIT members with significantly higher percentages of women in their programs.”

Through grants from NCWIT, Tran has spearheaded efforts in local elementary and middle schools to introduce girls to robotics and animation programming, in hopes of getting them hooked early.

“I think it’s important to introduce them to technology in that timeframe, because that’s when they’re most impressionable,” she said. “That’s why I’m running a computer club at my local middle school,… so that they can get involved in technology before they get battered by the stereotypes.”

Tran plans to major in computer science as an undergraduate, hopefully at Carnegie Mellon, and pursue a career in IT. However, she resists being pigeonholed as just another “computer nerd” through pursuits outside the tech arena, particularly singing. She is a long-time member of both Niwot’s and the SVVSD Honor Choir. Last fall, she starred as evil stepsister Florinda in Niwot’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical version of the Cinderella story, Into the Woods, an experience she called “incredibly fun.” She also volunteers for the Longmont Museum and Public Library, and has served on Niwot’s Link Crew and Interact Club.

“I think it’s important to have a diverse set of interests,” she said. “I like music, I enjoy technology, I like cross-stitching, which is my ‘old lady’ hobby. I think there’s no problem being all of those things.”

Tran has a message for girls who, like her younger self, may not have a strong background in computers or robotics, and are hoping to learn more.

“Don’t worry about not knowing,” Tran said. “If you’ve never been exposed to it, how are you supposed to know? It’s okay to not know. That’s the point of learning. If you’re interested in it, pursue it.”


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