Parkland class gives middle school girls intro to computer science

Parkland class gives middle school girls intro to computer science

CHAMPAIGN – Sarah Heffley has her own Web site, with photos from her trip to Canada and her own blog, complete with up-to-date posting.

"You can change what the cursor looks like," she said as she fiddled with her purple-and-pink home page. "I'm trying to figure it out."

Either way, the results are pretty impressive for a 12-year-old.

The Champaign resident is one of 24 middle school-aged girls who are diving into the technology age headfirst through a weeklong Parkland College course in Web design and animation.

The free course, partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is one of four Parkland summer classes offering girls a chance to learn about computer science – and hopefully fall in love with the field.

"These (fields) are really underrepresented when it comes to females and African-American and Latino populations," said Maria Mobasseri, chair of the college's computer science and information technology department.

In the workshops, teachers try to show that "you don't have to be a geek to be a computer scientist," Mobasseri said. "There are so many cool things happening."

Five afternoons this week, the girls met with Paul Young, a graphic design professor at Parkland. Step by step, he took them through the basics of Google Page Creator, a Web design tool. Then the students worked together on a class Web site.

On Thursday, they got to work on their own virtual creation.

They created a white box, defining its space by pixels, not inches. They typed their name into it. Then the real fun began.

Students made their names huge, in 72-point font, then picked the writing style and color.

"What font might express your personality?" Young asked them.

Shruti Vaidya, 12, of Champaign made each letter a different color.

"You get to learn all these different things about animation," she said. "I've never done it before."

By getting interested in the technology, Mobasseri hopes they also may become invested in it. "If I'm using this technology, I want to have something to do with the design of it," she said.

The program is the beginning of a continuum of services Parkland, in conjunction with several other regional institutions, has put together to get – and keep – girls interested in science.

Mobasseri presents at middle schools and encourages girls to take the summer workshops. She does the same thing in high schools, encouraging young women to look into dual credit courses with Parkland and their school.

"We try to create an environment that is totally nonthreatening," Mobasseri said. "It's OK if you don't know this stuff."

Next, she plans to offer the programs to black and Hispanic students. Mobasseri said she is working with the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club to start after-school workshops and is looking for other ways to reach that population.

In the meantime, girls in Young's class are mastering fonts and pixels, and they're ready for more.

"We've been learning animation," Heffley said. "It's really fun to just sort of make things move around."

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