ChicTech: A Pipeline for Women in Computer Science

Two ChicTech participants create animations using Scratch.

April 25, 2014

"This is the first time that I'm hearing her say, 'Yes, I'm considering computer science as a legitimate career field.'" –Kim Jenelle, mother of 2014 ChicTech participant.

Based on this remark a mother made about her daughter during the ChicTech retreat's final activity, the outreach may be having the impact for which its organizers are striving: to recruit girls into Computer Science. According to one of its directors, Illinois sophomore Lily Sellers, ChicTech's goal is to "inspire young girls to pursue education in computer science." So on May 3rd and 4th, 2014, ChicTech hosted 30 young women, many from the Chicago area, for a weekend featuring fun activities centered around computer science. Not only did female students in Illinois' Computer Science Department (CS) show participants a good time while exposing them to fun CS activities; they demonstrated that if the girls choose to study CS at Illinois, they will have a ready-made support system.

Sponsored by Women in Computer Science (WCS), a student organization for female CS students, the retreat was not only intended to serve girls from a wide range of age groups (6th through 12th grade), but the was designed for participants with diverse computer skills.

Student uses Scratch to create an animation.
A ChicTech middle school student hard at work during one of the workshops.

For example, beginners did basic level programming to create games in the "Make an Animation" workshop, using Scratch, a free program for creating interactive stories, games, and animations.

In the "Make a Website" workshop, girls with intermediate-level skills created personal websites using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

The most advanced students attended the "Build a Computer" workshop. Working with Raspberry Pis, they got to create a computer and an operating system, start it up, and run it.

"So we really try to make it fun," says WCS president, Lavanya Iyer, "but we try to make it educational at the same time, so that every student is learning something when they come here."

ChicTech participant shows off her Swag Bag.
ChicTech participant proudly displays her Swag Bag.

Upon their arrival at the retreat, participants received a "Swag Bag" filled with goodies. (Swag is not an acronym for anything, just a fun word that rhymes with Bag). Funding for ChicTech came from a number of sources, including the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT), John Deere, and Google, who funded the scavenger hunt; so these sponsoring companies donated things for the Bag, as did other CS organizations, who donated things as advertising. Some of the fun stuff each Swag Bag contained included a John Deere cap, a ChicTech umbrella, USB drives from the CS department, and a cool calculator and pen from AppDynamics. In addition, a couple of Microsoft puzzle balls one can take apart and put back together were given out as prizes.

And the girls didn't just spend their whole time on campus glued to computer workstations, but took part in a number of fun activities. For example, a Google-sponsored scavenger hunt gave the girls a chance to see campus; after finding specific places during the campus tour, girls took photos to prove they had been there, with the best photos winning prizes. Saturday's movie and activity night offered fun "girly" activities. Junior Aditi Mocharla, co-ChicTech Director, did mehendi (also known as henna), for the girls, who also did nail marbling and made jewelry from computer parts, followed by a sleepover in Siebel Center (what girl doesn't love a pajama party?).

But in addition to learning about computer science, doing fun activities, and getting a goodie bag, probably one of the most important things the girls did during the retreat was build relationships—both with their peers and with current Illinois students.

Brianna Ifft works with ChicTech participants during the retreat.
Brianna Ifft (center) works with two ChicTech participants during the retreat.

This was the case for CS freshman Brianna Ifft, who co-taught the "Create a Website" workshop. Ifft had attended ChicTech as a senior in high school. And according to Ifft, that retreat was pivotal in her decision to come to Illinois:

"I was trying to decide between two or three schools, so it was right in that decision-making time. For me, it helped sway my decision to come here."

And according to Ifft, the most salient aspect of ChicTech, the thing that clinched her decision to attend Illinois, was the relationships—interacting with the young women in WCS.

"It kind of made me feel at home," reminisces Ifft, "knowing that if I came here, I would be able to interact with them, do homework with them, and have them as both peers and mentors. That helped me know that I would have a community if I decided to come here."

And are any of the current crop of ChicTech participants interested in Illinois? Ifft says yes.

"A lot of them are very interested, and some of them have actually accepted to come here next year and are going to be students here. So for them, we can answer any questions, help them out. For others, they're prospective students who think they might want to come here. So it's neat that we can answer any questions they might have and help them decide that Illinois is a great computer science school and they might want to come here."

Lavanya Iyer
Lavanya Iyer, president of WCS, displays a ChicTech umbrella, one of the goodies in the Swag Bag.

Like Ifft, WCS president, Lavanya Iyer, a senior in computer science, knows personally the impact a weekend immersed in computer science can have on a young girl considering CS as a career. When in high school, she participated in WCS's TAC (Technical Ambassadors Competition), in which high school seniors formed teams of 2-4 to work on a community service project with faculty at their high school. A finalist in the competition, she got to come to Illinois for the ChicTech retreat, and the rest is history.

While Aditi Mocharla didn't come to Illinois as a result of ChicTech, she joined the outreach arm of WCS because she wanted to give current high school girls the exposure to computer science that she didn't have.

Aditi Mocharla (right) works with a student in the workshop where students made their own computers using Raspberry Pi
Aditi Mocharla (right) works with a student in the advanced workshop where students made their own computers using Raspberry Pis.

"Unlike Lavanya, I didn't really have all of those Computer Science experiences as a high school student. I didn't really do anything in CS before I became a CS major, and so I thought that I could help other high school girls who also might miss out on the opportunity just like I did to get to know more about CS and become more familiar and acquainted with it before they come into university."

What influence does Aditi hope ChicTech will have on girls?

"I guess to show them that Computer Science is a field," says Aditi, "and it's a very fun field. Even though it's so important in the industry, not a lot of schools and basic education focus on it, like it's not necessary. But in the time that we are living now, it is. So I want to show them that you can do these things, and there is all this stuff that you can do and give them a glimpse into the inside workings of the internet and web development and anything that interests them."

After being involved as a volunteer in ChicTech throughout her freshman year, Lily Sellers applied to become an officer her sophomore year. Her goal is to change some CS stereotypes: that it's a nerdy-boys-only club, and that it's boring.

Aditi Mocharla (left) and Lily Sellers, co-Directors of the 2014 ChicTech, during the closing event of the retreat (a close-up of a Raspberry Pi is on the screen behind them).

"What inspires me about ChicTech," says Sellers, "is that it teaches girls that they can be part of something that they don't necessarily see themselves as being a huge part of because it is a very male-dominated field, unfortunately. And they see it as this major where you are going to end up as a computer programmer behind a desk and just in the dark with a soda pop and chips. But it's really not like that at all."

Finally, Sellers hopes to convince girls that every major field of study is related to CS in some way. "I've been able to see so many different paths for myself through this field because technology is needed in almost every aspect of life nowadays."

For example, Sellers was originally interested in medicine before she chose computer science. Although she went into CS, she now sees that it's not a matter of either/or, but both/and.

Says Sellers, "But now I see how connected they are, and I really want to be involved in medical technology, and through CS you can go into almost any field you can imagine. Because every field uses some element of CS, and once I learned that through WCS and through my friends, I just knew I had made the right decision. I wanted to show girls through ChicTech that they have so many opportunities, and I just want to kind of preach the word."

Left to right: Kim Jenelle and her daughter, Jazmin
Left to right: Kim Jenelle and her daughter, Jasmine Renee, one of the few local girls.

It appears that WCS women aren't alone in their belief that there should be more women in Computer Science. Based on the following observation, Kim Jenelle, mother of one of the participants, Jazmin, appears to agree with Sellers on a number of key points.

"You know, it's going to be the next big thing. It's global. This field is only going to grow and expand. So I think it's really great that they have programs like this, especially to encourage girls, because I don't think we see a lot of female programmers. We don't see a lot of females in this field. I think even just that exposure to it is so important."

Late's daughter, Jazmin, participated in the Raspberry Pi workshop, where she built a mini computer. What did she like the most?

Jazmin at work in the Raspberry PI workshop

"I think my favorite thing was, after we had built the computer, seeing the LED light up every time someone sent a tweet that had the hash tag we were looking for. I thought that was really cool…and satisfying.

Will Jazmin go into computer science?

"I think it's a very good possibility that I will," admits Jazmin, "because it's really fun. There are a lot of different things I could do, and that's what I'm starting to find out."

While Chic Tech has two advisors, staff advisor Cynthia Coleman (whom the ladies call CJ), and faculty advisor Cinda Heeren, the outreach, now in its 10th year, is a well-oiled machine run solely by Illinois students. Heeren, who gave some closing remarks, has been involved all ten years and watched the outreach grow to its present size and efficiency. After lamenting that she felt like she had missed a "party," she congratulated participants for their work and said she hoped to see some of them in her Computer Science course in the near future.

Given ChicTech's track record as a computer science pipeline for girls, she most likely will.

Two ChicTech participants saying goodbye.
Two participants who became friends during the retreat say goodbye.

(Note: Girls who didn't get to come to the ChicTech retreat should definitely check out GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math and Science), a free day camp for girls entering or leaving 7th grade.)

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 8-12 Outreach, ChicTech, Computer Science, Women in STEM, 2014

For more about Computer Science opportunitites for girls, please see the following I-STEM web article:

Young women use Scratch during the 'Make an Animation' workshop
Young women use Scratch during the "Make an Animation" workshop"