Impact Innovation

"I built a calculator and it worked."

It’s not unusual for a 12-year-old to ask her parents for a computer for her birthday, but it’s the rare kid who would ask for the parts to build one.

Enter Caroline MacLaren, Skip of 2019, who did just that.

“We joked, ‘Is this normal?’ but it was for her,” said Gina MacLaren, Caroline’s mother. “Caroline has always been a tinkerer. So we got her all the bits and parts and she set it up in her room and she built it.”

To be fair, Caroline had an early boost in her interest in math and science. Her father, James MacLaren, is a Cambridge University graduate and a former Dean at Tulane-Newcomb College with a PhD in Physics. Caroline said she and her dad are close, and he often encouraged her to explore science and math. As for building that computer at the age of 12, Caroline is humble. “People think it’s insanely intricate, and it’s not. Plus, my Dad helped me with it.”

Caroline is one of a growing number of Ursuline students reshaping the high school’s STEM curriculum for the next generation, taking advanced courses in math and science, and becoming pioneers in areas often reserved for men. The school is graduating more young women each year who are heading to college to study math, physics, engineering, and in Caroline’s case, computer science.

It’s not by accident. Ursuline increasingly has been emphasizing the sciences, and actively recruiting middle and high school students into STEM and robotics courses.

Most recently, Ursuline introduced Project Lead The Way (PLTW) in the 2016-17 school year, a comprehensive approach to STEM education for students in K-4th grade that incorporates handson projects in the math and science fields into all aspects of the early education curriculum.  

The result has been young women increasingly comfortable at younger and younger ages with math and science courses, so much so that administrators are continuously looking to update and add to the curriculum just to keep up.

“That’s what we want to see,” said Jessica Baker, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, who has played a pivotal role as a mentor to Caroline at Ursuline.

Part of her job, she said, is to look for opportunities to develop and implement new courses in the school’s STEM offerings.

“For Caroline, Ursuline provided an opportunity to be exposed to technology at this level. And she took it and ran with it, and made the most of it,” Baker said.

Baker taught the first AP Computer Science course, one she wrangled Caroline into taking.

“I saw her come to class, uneasy about whether she wanted to be there. She was just ‘going to try this out.’ And yet, she blossomed. She took every challenge head-on, and grew exponentially."

What happened next is nothing short of a shining example of just what exposure to technology can do for a young woman's confidence.

Caroline tested high enough on her test to represent the school in Louisiana’s Literary Rally in computer science.

Having experienced only an all-girl environment at Ursuline since third grade, Caroline was in for a surprise. “When I walked in to take the test, it was a room full of boys. There were just a few girls. I know that’s how it is, more men than women in the sciences, but seeing it in reality … it was kind of a shock.”

By her junior year, Caroline was in honors courses, enough that she took the Advanced Placement exam in Computer Science, hoping to test out of some college courses early. As part of the exam, she had to build something using code.

“I built a calculator. And it worked,” said Caroline.

Except her calculator went beyond the coding language she’d learned in class, and had enough of an interface to show buttons and function keys.

“It wasn’t just code, it had buttons and keys which was more than they were expected to know,” said Baker. “I had asked them to take a look at some more advanced material in case they wanted to try it, and sure enough, Caroline taught herself how to do that,” said Baker.

Gina MacLaren said while Caroline’s two older sisters, who also graduated from Ursuline, don’t have the same interest in technology as her youngest, the school gave the three girls one common thread: Serviam.

“All of them in one way or another are giving back,” she said. “I could not be prouder of how each of my girls has found her unique path – and all came though Ursuline. That’s what we love about the school; it nurtures each girl’s passion and helps them succeed.”

Caroline said the thing she values most about Ursuline is just that, the service mindset. To that end, she has spent the past four years as a summer volunteer with the Spina Bifida of Greater New Orleans Camp Friendship. The organization pairs up campers with high school seniors.  Her service was the subject of a recent profile in St. Charles Avenue Magazine.

So what is next for Caroline, Computer Science Rock Star? She’s looking ahead to college and a career in computer science.

“I’d like to incorporate service into all of this, it’s one of the things that Ursuline has given me,” Caroline said. “Maybe working for the government in cybersecurity or something. We’ll see.”

Special thanks to Alina Hernandez, mother of Isabel Lambiet, Merry Mac of 2024, for her work on this article