Student Group compileHer Sparks CS Interest in Middle School Girls

March 22, 2019

Even by STEM standards, the gender gap in computer science has been difficult to close. While women such as Grace Hopper and Mary Allen Wilkes were critical contributors to the early days of computer programming, today’s tech world is heavily skewed towards men. Recent stories in the New York Times and books such as Brotopia have shone a spotlight on this disparity, offering ideas for increasing the number of women in the field of computer science and the tech workplace.

compileHer, a student group led by UChicago CS undergraduates, believes that early exposure to programming, technology, and other aspects of computer science can plant the seed for future careers. Through a variety of activities — including a hackathon, after-school coding workshops, a capstone event and field trips to local tech offices — the group brings computer science to middle school girls in Chicago, hopefully giving them a boost of confidence to pursue further tech education.

Since its founding as UChicago FEMMES in 2014, the student group has grown to more than 30 members, with a particular burst of interest from underclassmen.

“It’s been amazing to see...obviously we want to help build these young girl's confidence in pursuing computer science, but I feel like we're building a community back home here at UChicago as well,” said Devshi Mehrotra, a fourth-year who directs compileHer. “A lot of girls who go into computer science, the way they initially got exposed was through similar programs. For them, the mission of our organization really resonates, because they realize how this kind of experience can completely change your trajectory.”

Coding Dreams Into Reality

A matchmaking app that connects students with mentors or with other young women studying similar topics. An interactive-fiction roleplaying game that teaches girls about self-confidence and self-esteem. Recommendation engines that suggest volunteering opportunities, college-prep events, or personalized fashion ideas.

The final presentations at this year’s dreamHer hackathon, the annual event organized by compileHer at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, didn’t look like your typical tech pitches. That’s because the presenters, 53 middle school girls from schools around Chicago, represented voices that aren’t heard often enough in tech circles, one of many obstacles that discourage young women from pursuing computer science.

The day-long dreamHer event is designed to remove as many of these obstacles as possible, putting aside technical training in favor of brainstorming, design, and collaboration. Working with student and faculty volunteers, teams of girls invent their own application and bring it to life with a tool called MarvelApp that incorporates hand-drawn “screens” into an interactive display. At the end of the day, teams presented ideas such as SheCare, Ad Astra, ReliveIt, and Steps to Success, storyboarding how a user would navigate through their app and answering questions from UChicago CS faculty judges on how they would handle privacy and encourage social activity.

Participants also had chances throughout the day to experience cutting-edge technology, including virtual and augmented reality headsets brought to the Logan Center by SPR Consulting. Even the raffle prizes encouraged CS engagement, with drones, digital assistants, and copies of Eve Ewing’s Ironheart comic handed out by an algorithmic penguin to the (very) excited winners. But the emphasis on the day was not on tech in isolation, but rather computation skills as a useful tool for whatever the girls dreamed of doing.  

“The reason that technology is such a powerful tool is that it enables people to directly build the change they want to see in the world,” Mehrotra said. “Young women, and especially young women of color, may not necessarily see their dreams being reflected in the products being built by the technology industry today. We wanted this event to bridge the gap between the problems our students want to tackle and the technology that can help them achieve their goals.”

Helping Girls Discover Their Tech “SuperpowHers”

“It sounds really spooky.”

“It sounds like a sci-fi movie.”

“Stop, we’re not making a smoke alarm!”

By simply dragging lines between a few boxes in a graphical interface, 15 6th-to-8th-grade students at Bret Harte Elementary School learned the basics of creating sound with code, quickly finding ways to build tones that amuse — or irritate — their classmates. The introduction to computerized audio production was one of eight different topics, including web development, image editing, and robotics, that students got to try as part of the compileHer coding workshop.

Through these after-school sessions, undergraduate volunteers from compileHer provide a broad sampling of computer science applications, hoping to find the one that sparks inspiration for each student rather than dive deeply into a particular programming language. The workshop is a unique STEM education opportunity for girls at Bret Harte, a Hyde Park CPS school with a high proportion of low-income and African-American students, said their principal, Charles Bright.

"There are so many tech careers out there, and African-American girls are underrepresented in this field. Exposure at an early stage can make the difference,” Bright said. “I just want them to not be afraid when they hear the word 'coding,' to know that it's something that anyone can do, it’s just something that takes time and practice. If one or two of them end up going that way, I'll be thrilled.”

Another approach brings middle school girls to tech rather than vice versa, with field trips to the local offices of companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Braintree. During the visit, the middle school students get to meet with software engineers and hear about their own career path in computer science.

The year’s programming will build up to their annual Tech Capstone event on April 27th, themed for 2019 as superpowHer. As part of a broader narrative where “disaster has struck the city of Chicago and a virus has taken out citizen phones and computers,” participants must “harness technology as their superpower to help save the day.” They’ll do so by learning about CS topics such as cybersecurity and data visualization from UChicago faculty and students, while also experiencing the resources of the new Media Arts, Data and Design Center. Registration for this event is now open.

“The importance of technical literacy to social mobility in our society cannot be overstated,” Mehrotra said. “However, the potential for technology to serve as an equalizing force is unfortunately limited by barriers to educational opportunity along racial, socioeconomic, and gender lines. As a result, our approach to our programming is necessarily intersectional in nature. We are strongly committed to the principles of inclusivity and accessibility, as we seek to organize opportunities at no cost to our students and prioritize outreach to historically under-resourced schools.”

To learn more about CompileHer or get involved, visit their Facebook page.