Coding camps teach kids to consider careers in agriculture technology

Sisters Teresa Vallotton and Karen Hildebrand have brought their hands-on AI camps to Manitoba for the first time.

Teresa Vallotton teaches the class how to use the text-to-speech program 'Polly.'

The tinny babble of three electronic voices fills the hotel conference room. Three young students bend over laptops, where a program is reading them instructions for how to change a tire.

“What is she reading to you in?” Teresa Vallotton asks one teen.

“Icelandic,” she says.

The student beside her makes her computer speak with a British accent. Vallotton mimics its genteel tone as she bends down to assist.

It’s Monday afternoon, July 8. Sisters Teresa Vallotton and Karen Hildebrand, known collectively as the ‘Farm Femmes,’ are hosting the first AI in a Day coding camp of the week. It’s the first camp they’ve hosted in the province. The one-day camps introduce kids to artificial intelligence and how it’s applied to agriculture.

Vallotton and Hildebrand grew up on a mixed farm in Southern Manitoba. Hildebrand now lives in Minnesota, while Vallotton and her husband operate a grain farm in Southwestern Manitoba. Vallotton has a background in education, while Hildebrand has worked in data science.

The AI in a Day camps are just one way they use their experience to be ‘agvocates’ to a broader audience. Vallotton said their aim is to show kids and parents that there’s lots of ways to contribute to ag.

“Agriculture is a broad space and there’s lots of opportunity,” said Vallotton. She said that as farming becomes more and more high tech, ‘boots on the ground’ is no longer the only option for farm-minded kids.

“We think that everyone is at an advantage when kids develop their technical skills,” she said.

A student reviews on a laptop what he's learned at code camp. photo: Geralyn Wichers

The kids are introduced to three main areas of AI: image recognition, text-to-speech, and interactive chat bots using the Amazon Web Services cloud-based platform. For each skill, Vallotton and Hildebrand have real-life farm examples for the kids.

For instance, image-recognition combined with security cameras can ‘ping’ unauthorized users of a farm fuel tank and notify the owners.

As in the case of the tire-changing instructions, Vallotton said text-to-speech can be used to read instructions or manuals when a person’s hands are busy.

The class ends with a ‘show what you know’ period where students demonstrate their new skills.

“We were really hoping that these kids would be able to walk away and say, ‘Mom and Dad look at what I’ve done’ by the end of the day,” said Hildebrand.

Their first class has three kids. The next class the following, has a few more. They’re testing a new format, said Hildebrandt. Until now, the majority of their teaching has been in the United States where they’ve taught groups of up to 500 kids.

In that setting, students rotated through stations. Here, each kid sits at their own computer and gets to try everything.

Getting started in Manitoba has been rocky. A Winkler-area camp, scheduled in June, had to be cancelled for lack of interest. Vallotton and Hildebrand said between school, sports and spraying season, the timing probably wasn’t the right fit.

The Winnipeg camps were supposed to coincide with a farm show at the Red River Exhibition grounds, said Hildebrandt, but that was also cancelled. Today’s students aren’t even farm kids, but that has a silver lining – the Farm Femmes get to introduce the students to farm life.

“[Agriculture] is maybe a setting that you would have never thought about before, but Ag needs all of our skill sets, Hildebrand said.

Meanwhile, they hope to come back next year and try again. After all, Hildebrand said, in a few years the Ag sector will need these kids.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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