Undergraduate Rita Roloff to share passion for STEM with local girls

Rita RoloffFor computer science major Rita Roloff (pictured at right), the field presents tantalizing possibilities.  “You can create anything you really want to,” says the student from Greendale, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb.  “It doesn’t have to be an app.  You can help a lot of people with technology and have a real impact.”

Though she just finished her first year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Roloff already has junior standing.  What’s more, Roloff was recently selected as a 2016-17 Wisconsin Idea Fellow through a program administered by UW’s Morgridge Center for Public Service. (Read more about the program and the other fellowship winners here.)

Wisconsin Idea Fellowships provide financial and logistical support to undergraduates working to solve societal problems, either local or global.  Fellowships are awarded competitively, and Roloff’s project is one of only nine selected campus-wide for the coming academic year.  She’ll focus on enhancing STEM education for at-risk girls in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Roloff’s effort, called “Textiles + TechStyles:  Code, Entrepreneurship and Design,” will take place at the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s east side.  In the fall, she’ll work with a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade girls.  The girls are at an age when many get discouraged about STEM subjects or begin to pick up on social cues that these fields are somehow not for them.  (This phenomenon has been widely studied, including by the U.S. Department of Education.)

The curriculum for “Textiles + TechStyles” merges clothing design with multiple STEM disciplines.  It was developed by Pretty Brainy, an educational nonprofit founded by another Badger, Heidi Olinger (BA ‘84).  Olinger will visit Madison this fall to meet with Roloff.

Olinger (pictured at left) believes that girls are natural problem-solvers who are excited by discovering the ways math and other STEM fields can solve real-world challenges that matter to them.

As the Pretty Brainy CEO said in a TED talk (viewable on YouTube), “The path of least math is no longer an option.”  She means that young people today cannot opt out of higher math assuming it will be irrelevant for their future careers.  On the contrary, math and science will open professional doors.

Watching Olinger’s TED talk online was how Roloff discovered Pretty Brainy.  She contacted Olinger, wanting to get involved.  Citing Roloff’s dual interests in STEM and the art and science of fashion, Olinger says, “Rita is disrupting worn-out notions of who belongs in STEM studies and careers.”

Although fashion design offers an entry point for tween girls in the program, it is melded with STEM fields from computer science and business math to soil science.

In the first month, Roloff will teach girls how to build circuits and work with LED lights.  Over time, the girls will develop a full-fledged clothing concept that they must pitch.  Concepts should be creative and useful; for example, a Pretty Brainy club in Colorado developed a jacket for runners with LED safety features to make them more visible.

Pretty Brainy emphasizes hands-on, creative learning.  “I love that the girls are in charge, and that’s how they learn,” says Roloff.

Olinger notes the importance of role models for young girls in STEM.  As a thriving college student, Roloff can provide an example for preteen students to emulate.  “For girls who are discouraged in STEM, Rita is an empowering figure.  Next school year, when she walks into a classroom equipped with the Pretty Brainy curriculum, she’ll have everyone’s full attention because every girl will want to identify with Rita,” says Olinger.

Dr. Shirin Malekpour, a faculty associate in the mathematics department, will be Roloff’s adviser for the duration of her fellowship.  The two met when Roloff took Malekpour’s calculus class.

Says Malekpour, “Rita’s enthusiasm for mathematics and learning is very noticeable. I am hoping with this project she can get young girls excited about STEM and encourage them to become problem solvers and independent thinkers.  I like for the younger girls to realize that there is not always an algorithm to solve problems, but that creativity plays a big role in mathematics.”


[Photos courtesy of Rita Roloff and Pretty Brainy]