Edie Koehlert (second from right) and Sylvie Wurmser (third from right) join other winners of ProjectCSGirls’ national competition in 2019. The pair now help run a newly expanded ProjectCSGirls chapter in Montclair, working with middle-schoolers across the district to develop their science, engineering, technology and math skills. (COURTESY SYLVIE WURMSER)

By LAUREN PEACOCK
For Montclair Local`

Sylvie Wurmser and Edie Koehlert wanted to find a way to ride their bikes without hitting potholes and fallen trees. They had no idea they were going to influence and encourage the talents of Montclair girls for years.

Wurmser and Koehlert, both rising juniors at Montclair High School, work with Buzz Aldrin Middle School STEM coordinator and teacher Daniel Taylor to run a chapter of the national ProjectCSGIRLS club, to get middle school girls involved in STEMscience, technology, engineering and mathematics. Every year since the national club was founded in 2013, it holds a competition for middle school girls to create an invention or to code an app that solves a real-life issue, write a 10-page paper with an in-depth technical summary, make a video showing off the prototype of the invention or the app and make a summary blog post.

“A lot of girls don’t think that they can do that, so we want to provide the opportunity to show them that they can,” Wurmser said.

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The club started in 2015 at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, when Montclair parent Ursula Wolz reached out to Taylor about the competition. Wolz — a longtime educator with a doctorate in computer science, as well as expertise in artificial intelligence, gaming and multimedia who founded a company focusing on software resources for learning — believed “it would be a wonderful opportunity to captivate girls at a young age and get them involved in STEM,” Taylor said.

Wurmser and Koehlert competed themselves, all three years of their middle school careers — in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The final year, they placed fourth globally for their invention of a sensor that goes on the handlebars of a bicycle to detect potholes and fallen trees, and alerts the bicyclist. That was when the national ProjectCSGIRLS founder, Pooja Chandrashekar, personally asked them to create a larger chapter in their hometown, to get more girls involved.

“A big part of our success in 2019 was that we had a personal connection to it. We’re big bikers, and that’s something they (ProjectCSGIRLS) really care about — involving yourself and your personal beliefs in STEM,” Koehlert said.

Wurmser, Koehlert and Taylor worked together to bring the club to all three of Montclair’s middle schools. That got delayed in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, but starting in February of this year, ProjectCS includes students from Glenfield and Renaissance Middle Schools as well.

The expansion led to quick success. All 12 girls in the club that submitted their projects (some alone, some in teams of three), were chosen as national semifinalists. Three of those groups or individuals were finalists, and all three of Montclair’s Middle School’s were represented.

Making the finals were Shayna Safirstein; Ila Bhattacharjee; and a team of Zora Tracy, Ayla Avdicevic and Danica Stout. Making the semifinals were Madeleine Young, Stella Castillo, Charlotte Wurmser, Aaria Shah, Ella Reynolds, Samamntha Leftwich (as well as another student whose name the school district hasn’t received parent’s a clearance to provide).

The results will be announced at the National ProjectCSGIRLS Competition Gala, which will be online this year due to pandemic safety precautions; a date has yet to be announced. 

“It’s a field that typically does not have many girls in it, so part of it is just introducing them to STEM,” Wurmser said. “It’s very challenging. We give them the tools to do it, but they come up with the invention and do everything themselves.”

All middle school girls within the district are welcome to join, with no requirements. They’re just asked to have the imagination to identify a problem within their life and have the desire and motivation to create a solution.

“You don’t have to be a scientist, iif you pair with someone who has an interest in science, and you’re’ a writer or the artist type or the math type. That makes for a great collaboration,” Taylor said. “Another thing the girls get out of this is being able to work together as a team.”

Wurmser, Koehlert and Taylor help the students with the process of competing, and teach them lessons about science, math, engineering and technology.

“These are high school skills that these girls are getting at 11 and 12 years old, so this is the empowerment and the broad umbrella that brings confidence and resilience,” Taylor said.

This year, the season ended in May of 2021 and will be picking up in fall 2021. The club meets every Thursday online, via Zoom.

“Our main goal is imparting the intersectionality of STEM. You don’t have to become a computer science major or even like science, because it’s not really about the science,” Koehlert said. “It’s about expanding your mind and teaches you a lot about yourself and your skillset.”

Wurmser, Koehlert and Taylor want the Montclair community to recognize and emphasize all the hard work these girls do.

“Watching them be successful is enthralling, but just getting the project in is a huge success, so being nominated as semi-finalists and finalists brings tears to my eyes,” Taylor said.