ChicTech Introduces High School Girls to Computer Science—Other Girls Who Are Passionate About It Too

An Illinois CS student (right) works with a high school girl learning to code during ChicTech.

December 6, 2018

Excited to interact with other girls (and women) interested in computer science, high school girls from all over the state showed up at ChicTech, a two-day event designed to expose girls to computer science (CS), some possible careers in CS, and to show them that they would have a ready-made community, the WCS (Women in Computer Science) group, should they matriculate to Illinois. And more importantly, during the workshops, they learned that, yes, indeed, they can do computer science.

One of the main goals of Chic Tech was to give participants a chance to learn that they can do computer science. The event featured three different workshops designed for girls with different levels of expertise. For example, girls with little or no coding experience could attend the HTML/CSS: Build Your Own Website workshop and do just that. The other two workshops were intended to expose girls with intermediate or advanced-level coding skills to different aspects of CS. For instance, in the Java Chatbot workshop, the girls created chatbots, which are applications designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet. In the final workshop, Java/C++: Image Manipulations, participants learned how to do Photoshop-esque photo editing without using Photoshop, but instead using Javascript and/or C++.

Two CS students (left) watch as a a high school girl participating in the Java/C++: Image Manipulations workshop edits an image.

Another purpose of ChicTech was to expose the girls to female role models. For instance volunteering at the event were a number of WCS members, women who are currently studying CS at Illinois. These women (along with a few male CS students) were on hand to not only help the younger students when they had issues during the workshops, but also to be available to answer the girls’ questions such as, “How did you end up in Computer Science?” "What’s it like being a woman studying CS at Illinois?” and “What are some of the different careers available to CS majors?"

In addition to women who are currently studying CS, the idea was to expose the high schoolers to women who currently have careers in CS. For instance, exposing the young participants to the idea that they could have a CS career in academia, or in her research area, data-driven design, was the first guest speaker, CS Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar. Other speakers included Kate Key, along with Illinois alum Corly Leung, who was heavily involved in WCS when she was here, and actually served as the WCS outreach coordinator back in 2015.

CS Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar interacts with the ChicTech participants.

Chic Tech participants enjoying Kumar's talk.

Morgan Taylor enjoys Girls' Night during the Fall 2018 ChicTech.

ChicTech planners sought to convey to the participants that Illinois CS students don’t just code 24/7, but that they also know how to have fun. So after a day spent hunkered down over computers and wrestling with coding challenges, the girls got into some comfy clothes and settled in for Girls’ Night—a relaxing evening playing games, making relationships, and just plain having fun doing...girl-type things. So, with the Disney movie Mulan in the background on the big screen, the girls, both young and old, bonded while doing their nails or playing games, such as a rousing game of Uno while many of the participants were ensconced in their "blankies" or sleeping bags.

One important ChicTech activity of the two-day event was the period just before lunch on Sunday morning. During the Demo session, girls proudly showed their equally proud parents what they had created during their workshops. While viewing her daughter’s work, Sandy Jones, the mother of one participant from the Chicago suburbs, explains why she encouraged her daughter to participate in ChicTech.

“Because she's interested in computer science for college, and the University of Illinois is one of her colleges she's looking into. So we thought it would be a great opportunity.” She believes her daughter, a sophomore, benefitted from her first time at ChicTech. “I know I've talked with her and she said that she really enjoyed it,” Jones explains, “definitely learned some things, and just enjoyed the entire experience.” 

For Morgan Taylor, a junior at uiuNormal Community West High School, this was her third time at ChicTech. She shares why she keeps coming back.

“It's always fun, she explains, and I always learn something different. Even if we're using the same program, we do something different every time.”

Her favorite thing about ChicTech is meeting people who are also interested in computer science. “I just meet a lot of new people that have the same interests as me,” she admits, “and I think it's a lot of fun knowing there's more than just the four girls in my computer science class.” The ratio of guys to girls in her high school computer science class is about 8 to 1. So she was happy to discover that the ratio of guys to girls in CS at Illinois (one of her top two choices right now) is currently about 4:1, while the ratio of guys to girls in the last couple of freshman CS classes at Illinois has almost reached 1:1.

Taylor says she’s taken several CS courses in high school, including this year’s AP CS Principles course, during which they’re learning 7 CS languages Since she’ll be taking Java script next year, she got a head start by taking the Java/C++ session at ChicTech, where they learned how to edit photos using code instead of Photoshop.

Her dream job? To work for a company like Amazon, helping to code the algorithms the website uses to recommend products to people. “Because I think it's so cool how accurate they are and how they can predict what you're going to buy,” she explains.

Rose Riordan (left) interacts with a volunteer during one of the more advanced coding workshops.

Another participant who has also been at ChicTech three times was Rose Riordan, a junior in Matea Valley High in Naperville, Illinois

Riordan, says she plans on going into computer science. “I am, yeah,” she acknowledges. “I think that I'm not totally set in stone on what I want to do for sure, but I think that maybe some computer science/law. I think I want to be a lawyer with some kind of computer science background.”

Riordan shares why she likes computer science so much. “There's a lot you can do. It opens a lot of doors…and I feel like coming here kind of gives you a little taste of the experience.”

WCS Outreach Co-Chair Grace Cao, and President, Shivali Patel.

Riordan indicates that her favorite thing about ChicTech, and why she has kept coming back, is the presence of so many girls who have the same passion about CS that she does.

“When I was younger, I'd go to all of the coding and robotics camps. A lot of the time I would be, if not the only girl, one of very few girls. There's just something really nice about seeing so many—having there be so many girls in something like this. There's just something comforting about it, I think.”

Plus, she really likes Illinois. “And U of I is cool, and I like the campus. It's a really fun experience, and I like it a lot.” 

Another reason she keeps coming back year after year? “Computer science is cool!” Riordan then adds another very important reason for attending: “The bagels that they serve here are really good!” 

For more I-STEM articles about ChicTech, see:

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 8-12 Outreach, ChicTech, Computer Science, Women in STEM, 2018

During Girls' Night, a couple of Illinois CS students show that computer science students know how to have fun.

An Illinois CS student (left) explains to a high school participant how to deal with an issue she's having while coding.

A ChicTech participant prepares to enjoy Girls' Night with her stuffed animal.

Sandy Jones (left) looks on as her daughter does a demo of what she'd been working on during ChicTech.

Ensconced in their sleeping bags and "blankies," ChicTech participants enjoy a game of Uno.