ChicTech Seeks to Increase the # of Women in Computer Science—and Is Succeeding!

A ChicTech participant learns about CS during the Python Workshop.

November 16, 2016

Computer Science is only for guys who are nerdy geeks and who sit glued to their computers 24/7! This is one of the myths about computer science (CS)  that the fall 2016 ChicTech outreach set about to dispel, while showing 61 visiting high school girls (up from 50 last year) that CS is cool. Held November 12–13, the event, hosted by Illinois’ Women in Computer Science (WCS), was designed to show girls that they too can do CS, that it’s lots of fun, what it’s like to be a CS student at Illinois, and what a CS career might be like. And as its name implies, ChicTech sought to show girls that they can be CS majors and still be chic—still be all girl! Finally, ChicTech underscored that if these young women matriculate to Illinois, they will have a great support system of other women in CS.

One of ChicTech’s main goals was to show girls who had no coding experience, nor access to it in high school, that not only could they do computer coding, but that it’s fun! So three sessions were devoted to coding workshops. Girls were divided by expertise into three groups: girls who had never coded before, those with some experience, and, finally, computer-savvy girls with a lot of experience. Then, during the workshops, they learned to use applications based on their skill levels: beginners used HTML and CSS to design a web page; students with intermediate-level skills used JAVA; advanced-level students worked with Python.

Illinois CS student Emily Chao (center) helps high school students during ChicTech's Python Workshop.

To show the girls career opportunities available in CS, during lunch, Sharon Zhu from Huawei presented so the girls could find out what they might expect after college if they went into industry.

Another important goal of ChicTech was to show the visitors what life as a CS student at Illinois is like. So the event fostered interactions with nearly 80 CS students (mostly women) who volunteered to work with participants. A large number of CS students were on hand to teach participants during the workshops.

CS students also participated in other ChicTech activities to show girls that there's more to being a CS student than being glued to a computer screen. They shepherded groups of girls around campus during Saturday afternoon’s photo scavenger hunt. In addition to introducing them to campus icons Alma Mater and Grainger Bob, the scavenger hunt required some borderline-impossible photos, such as one with a minimum of five squirrels (Photoshop, anyone?).  To further expose girls to college life, on Sunday, a panel of current CS students answered any questions girls might have had.

During Girls' Night, ChicTech participants not only enjoyed decorating cupcakes, but eating them (image courtesy of Crystal Wang).

Saturday evening’s activities were designed to further develop relationships among the girls themselves and the CS students. Students played Jeopardy!, which included some questions about famous females in technology or tech companies that got their start at Illinois, along with a team-building activity: an egg-drop challenge. And to show the visitors that they don’t have to give up being girly-girly to be computer science majors, Girls’ Night featured painting nails, making jewelry out of computer parts, and decorating cupcakes.

Sunday afternoon’s events included the girls’ parents, who were invited for  pizza and a talk by a CS Professor Anna Yershova, who spoke about virtual reality, as well as the final session where girls presented their projects so their folks could see what they’d learned over the weekend.

ChicTech's overarching goal was to show girls that if they studied CS at Illinois, they wouldn’t have to go it alone, but would have the support of other women in CS who have already been through it all and could be a great resource.

Nor would they be the token girl in any CS classroom any more. They learned that the percentage of women in CS at Illinois is on the rise: it appears the numerous outreach events, such as Chic Tech, that WCS has been holding over the last several years are starting to pay off—big time! Almost half (46%) of the 190 freshmen in Illinois’ CS Department are women (significantly greater than the 18% in CS nationwide), almost a 50% increase over the 24% in last year’s freshman class, and a drastic increase from JUST 6% back in 2012.

A ChicTech participant learns about HTML/CSS during a workshop.

What role did ChicTech and other WCS outreaches play in the ground-breaking number of women in Illinois’ fall 2016 CS freshmen class? Those data weren’t available, but when it comes to ChicTech’s success rate among two of the women currently studying CS at Illinois, it’s 2 for 2.

WCS Outreach Chair Brianna Ifft and fellow CS major Emily Chao, two current ChicTech leaders, both came to ChicTech as highschoolers in Spring 2013. Ironically, they never met. “We both went the same year,” Ifft acknowledges, “We sat one table apart, but we didn’t meet till freshmen year."

What kind of impact did ChicTech have on Ifft ending up at Illinois studying CS??

Although ChicTech didn't introduce Ifft to CS (she took classes in high school), “It definitely impacted my decision to come to Illinois, she admits. That’s why she's so sold on Chic Tech, and why as WCS’s outreach chair, she's devoted to outreach—because of the impact it had on her personally. So she hopes to pass it on.

According to Ifft, WCS has been working hard to keep the STEM pipeline to Illinois flowing and to recruit more women to CS. For example, in addition to ChicTech, WCS hosts GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math and Science) for middle school girls. They’ve also visited several local high schools a number of times. Ifft reports that a lot of girls come to all or manyh WCS outreach activities.

“So I think it’s really helpful that we do have so many different things going on, and not just one,” she admits.

Plus, girls who came to ChicTech last year were invited to come back this year, and WCS will keep in contact with this year’s participants as well. “We make a Facebook page for them all to join, and we paste things such as scholarship opportunities in for them. So we try to keep in touch with them a little bit with the FB group.” The girls will also be invited to CS@Illinois SAIL outreach as well.

ChicTech participants practice coding iduring the CSS/HTML Workshop.

And once girls apply and are admitted to Illinois, WCS also works hard to “wine and dine” them, to ensure that they feel welcome and to assure them that, should they attend Illinois. they would have the support of many other women in CS—including some they’ve met at outreach events.

WCS also stays involved with girls through admitted-student events. Both last fall and this past spring, WCS invited women to campus for Women in CS Admitted Day. Ifft, who helped run the events, says visitors got a taste of university life, ate lunch in dorms, talked to people in the department, and met WCS girls.

Ifft’s commitment to outreach is motivated by a desire to increase the number of women in CS:
“I think the big reason is because girls are a minority in tech, and to get girls exposed to this,” she admits.

A CS student (left) and a ChicTech participant enjoy interacting during one of the workshops.

She feels WCS outreach fills a niche for students don’t have access to CS courses in high school.

“I think it can sometimes be overwhelming or scary to approach it, but we’re trying to get them in and show them that they can do it on their own. They can start doing it right away, and [we] show them how powerful coding is. A lot of high schools don’t have computer science classes, so if they didn’t then they can find out if they like it and decide if this is what they want to do when they get to college.”

And, of course, Ifft would like them to come to Illinois:

“So, yea, basically just getting them exposed to coding and getting them to U of I to show them what we have to offer here. By getting them involved with CS girls and CS @ ILLINOIS, they can decide if they want to come here in the future, and they can see that they would have a great support network here.””

WCS Outreach Chair Brianna Ifft in Illinois' Siebel Center.

For more istem articles about Computer Science opportunities for girls, see:

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 8-12 Outreach, ChicTech, Computer Science, Women in STEM, 2016

ChicTech participants discover campus during the Photo Scavenger Hunt.

A ChicTech participant prepares to settle down for the night (image courtesy of Crystal Wang).

A ChicTech participant engaging with one of Illinois' CS students during a workshop.

A CS student (left) works with a ChicTech participant learning to code in the HTML/CSS workshop.

ChicTech leaders Sathvika Ashkkumar, Salina Ortega, Brianna Ifft, Devashri Nagaruar, and Emily Chao

ChicTech participants spell out "ChicTech" with the south portico of Engineering Hall in the background, one of the more doable photo opps among the Photo Scavenger Hunt options.

During the Photo Scavenger Hunt, a group of ChicTech participants discover a student favorite—the frozen yogurt store in campus town.