Code Camp empowers high school girls with computer science education

April 22, 2014, 1:02 a.m.
Courtesy of Heidi Wang
Courtesy of Heidi Wang

Last weekend, Girls Teach Girls To Code (GTGTC), a program sponsored by the Computer Science Department, hosted over 200 high school girls on campus for a “Code Camp” that aimed to introduce them to the various real-life applications of computer science.

The all-day event, which took place in the Hewlett Teaching Center and the Gates Computer Science Building, was Stanford’s second Code Camp, according to GTGTC founder and coordinator Heidi Wang ’14. Code Camp is the largest annual event that GTGTC puts on, involving close to 50 Stanford student volunteers who mentor the high school students. Volunteers give a morning presentation to all participants before they are broken into groups in the afternoon to learn in student-created workshops.

“In the afternoon, they can explore two special tracks that they’re interested in, like web development or puzzle solving — there’s eight of them,” said Jessie Duan ’15, another GTGTC coordinator. “Then there’s a career panel later in the afternoon.”

The event proved to be extremely popular, according to Wang, with well over 250 high school students signing up.

Participants, who had come from all over the Bay Area, expressed a variety of rationales for coming to Code Camp.

“I’m currently taking AP Computer Science and learning HTML on the side,” said Rhea Manocha, a sophomore from Pleasanton. “I was interested in robotics and code breaking.”

“I’ve been learning [computer science] for about a few months and I was interested in learning from actual people that are in the field,” said Alisha Nanda, a high school student from Fremont. “[Learning computer science] is like learning another [foreign] language — it would help me learn so many things.”

Although not all interested high school students were able to join them for Code Camp, GTGTC also provides smaller-scale events throughout the academic year, including company tours and visits to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

According to Duan, GTGTC reaches out to high school students not only through various mailing lists and parent or teacher connections, but also through liaisons — high school students that work directly with them to coordinate publicity within their own schools.

“A lot of girls hear about us through word of mouth, too,” Duan added.

Given increasing demand for GTGTC’s programming, the group has plans for expansion, including trying to host Code Camp biannually as opposed to once in the spring. Wang also voiced aspirations beyond the Stanford campus.

“In the far future, we’re hoping that this is an organization with chapters in different colleges,” Wang said. “You can imagine if it was offered to girls across the nation and the world, how many girls we could reach and the impact we could make.”

The program’s success to date has far exceeded its founders’ expectations. GTGTC started as a Kickstarter idea that Wang had submitted to a contest in 2012, explaining she wanted to encourage more females to go into the field so that she could work alongside others of her own gender.

“I went to Wellesley College, an all-girls’ school, and the summer I graduated, I did an internship in San Francisco,” Wang said. “I was the only female technical intern, and the contrast was really stark for me. I came from Wellesley, a classroom full of girls doing CS, and then suddenly I was the only one working in the office. I wish more girls went into CS so that I could have more girls around me and I felt like I wanted someone to be there to tell me enter in the field in the first place.”

Duan and Wang identified several reasons why the gender ratio in a field like computer science — where just one in seven majors are female — is so skewed.

“Girls in general feel like they are intimidated by [computer science] or think that they can’t code,” Wang said. “They think that they’re not good at math so therefore they’re not good at CS. There’s mostly misconceptions about what CS is and a lack of confidence in being able to tackle something unknown to them.”

“So one of our missions is to show high school girls that [computer science] is really fun and that it’s flexible and can be fun in many different ways,” Duan said. “If you have any CS knowledge, you will immediately be more valuable and we want to expose them to mentors that are cool and accessible to them.”

After being selected by a community vote to receive $2,500 to commence her efforts, Wang gathered a team to help get the program started. She noted that the Computer Science Department was extremely supportive of her events from the start, providing funding for renting tables and chairs.

Many of the Code Camp mentors are computer science majors; however, anyone that has taken CS106A is eligible to volunteer.

Marissa Maas ’17, a symbolic systems major, worked as a program mentor and put together one of the specialized workshops. She worked with her team to develop a workshop called “Hands-on Tinkering,” in which students would create an electric keyboard out of wires and tinfoil.

“The most memorable moment to me was seeing when [the girls] saw it working for the first time and they pressed the key and something that they had built worked,” Maas said. “It was a really rewarding experience.”

Maas stated that a lot of the stereotypes that exist in the field prevent women from going into computer science in the first place, a sentiment that Wang also affirmed.

“I think any time a field is heavily male-dominated it’s hard to break into it just because of intimidation,” Maas said. “It can be hard to push the boundaries. It’s good to learn at a young age that you can be in computer science, because even if you don’t end up pursuing that, you still feel like you have the capacity to learn other fields that are similar.”

“It’s hard for girls to see role models who are women in tech,” Wang said. “It seems like there’s this view that coders are old white bald men eating junk food in the basement not seeing the light of the day. That’s not what CS is about.”

Contact Catherine Zaw at czaw13 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

Catherine Zaw was formerly the Managing Editor of News for Vol. 245 and Vol. 246. To contact her, please email [email protected].

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