ChicTech Seeks to Foster High School Girls’ Interest in Computer Science

An Illinois CS student helps a high school student during ChicTech.

December 8, 2015

Why would a number of Illinois' female Computer Science (CS) students devote an entire weekend in early November hosting a group of high school girls as part of the 2015 ChicTech Retreat? Dedicated to increasing the number of women in their field, these CS students hoped many of the girls, who share their affinity for computer-related technology, might some day end up choosing CS as a career as a result of the experience.

Sponsored by Women in Computer Science (WCS), a student organization for female CS students at Illinois, ChicTech Retreat, on the weekend of November 7th and 8th, drew 49 high school students from around the state (with a majority from Chicago’s suburbs). While its main thrust was to expose the girls to computer science (CS), the retreat was also intended to foster relationship building—not only with peers who have similar interests—but with current Illinois students, give participants a taste of what being a CS student at Illinois is like, and show the girls that if they were to pursue a career in CS, they would have access to a ready-made network of support.

Geared toward high schoolers, the weekend featured challenging activities centered around computer science. The workshops were designed for participants with diverse computer skills, ranging from beginners to those with more advanced skills. For beginners, the workshop reatured Scratch; in the medium-difficulty workshop, participants created their own websites using HTML and CSS; for the highest-difficulty workshop, girls learned how to use Javascript to add sound-specific icons. And in each workshop, girls created projects based on their workshop tracks. 

However, the girls didn’t spend the entire weekend glued to computer monitors. One relationship-building activity included a photo scavenger hunt, which helped the girls become familiar with campus. Plus, Saturday's girls’ night featured some fun, girl-bonding activities: a movie, painting nails, and making jewelry.

A ChicTech participant (right) presents her project during Sunday's Final Presentation session.

On Sunday, the girls’ parents were invited to lunch, then a final session showcasing all that the girls had learned, where girls from each workshop did demos of their projects

While the retreat planners sought to foster relationship-building and to give the girls a good time, the main goal of the event was to expose them to computer science in hopes that they might choose it as a career. According to Illinois CS junior Brianna Ifft, Director of the fall 2015 retreat, “We hold the ChicTech Retreat in order to spread awareness of computer science to high school girls. The retreat gives them an opportunity to grasp the concept of computer science and decide if it is something they want to pursue in college.”

The WCS members who helped with the retreat also indicated that their ultimate goal in participating was to recruit more girls into their field. For instance, Jingxian Zhang, a second year master's student who taught the HTML/CSS workshop, admits, “I sincerely hope more girls could come to CS field after seeing the charm of it.”

Zhang reports that when she decided to go into computer science, she hadn’t really known that much about the field. That's why she decided to participate in the retreat—in order to give more girls exposure to what computer science is like.

“When I was choosing my major in college, I didn't have much idea of what CS or EE students would do. So by taking part in ChicTech and teaching the workshop, I wish the girls could have a basic understanding of what they could do with CS knowledge before they come to the point of choosing their majors.”

An Illinois CS student helps a high school student during ChicTech.

Crystal Xinyu Wang, a Computer Science sophomore, taught the Scratch workshop for girls with beginner experience in coding. Wang also participated in ChicTech in hopes of increasing the number of girls in computer science. But unlike Zhang, Wang says she herself participated in similar workshops while she was in high school, and those had a significant impact on her choosing CS as a career.

“Those were definitely the main reason I chose to pursue an education in computer science,” Wang admits. “I wanted to pass along a similar to experience, and the ChicTech retreat was the perfect way to do that. My goal this weekend was to share my experiences in computer science with girls who are interested and might otherwise not know someone who is involved in computer science. Exposure to computer science is most important for young girls because that's the most effective way in increasing the number of women in computer science.”

An Illinois CS student (right) helps a ChicTech participant troubleshoot her project.

ChicTech Director Brianna Ifft also hopes that the weekend helped the girls understand that while there aren’t a lot of girls in the field of computer science, they wouldn’t be alone, but would have access to a support system of other women in computer science at Illinois. Thus, the weekend offered plenty of networking and relationship building with the CS students who helped run the event, as well as a panel of CS students so girls could find out what being a student at Illinois was like.

“With females being a minority in the field,” admits Ifft, “we really want to show these high school girls that there will be a support network out there for them if they choose to pursue computer science, whether or not it is at UIUC.” 

What impact did the weekend have on the girls?

Zhang reports that the girls in her HTML/CSS workshop learned a lot about creating a website. “The girls explored knowledge from new fields,” she says. “They learned how to create interactions with images and hyperlinks on website, how to modify the background of a website, etc. What the girls made with HTML/CSS are portfolio websites, so I think they also learned how to effectively show their experience and achievement to the others using websites.”

A high school student works on her project during a ChicTech workshop.

Wang believes the girls in her Scratch workshop also appreciated learning new computer skills. “I thought the girls had a lot of fun, and Scratch is such a great language to introduce them to object-oriented programming. I think the biggest impact is that they got an idea of the things programming is capable of in a fun and immersive way.”

Ifft believes the retreat had just the impact they intended:

“The girls really enjoyed it,” she reports. “From their feedback, they loved meeting other girls with the same interests, and also really enjoyed learning a new technical skill. The girls also were glad for the opportunity to talk to current students who could answer their questions about what it's like to be a computer science major, and what to expect from college life.” 

For more istem articles about Computer Science opportunitites for girls, please see the following:

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 8-12 Outreach, ChicTech, Computer Science, Women in STEM, 2015

ChicTech participants work on their projects during one of the workshops.