CHAMPAIGN — A day camp for middle-school girls on the University of Illinois campus is centered around computer science, but that doesn't mean the students involved are only concerned with computers.
Instead, the camp coordinators at the Girls Engaged in Math and Science Camp are teaching them about how computer science can solve worldwide problems, how it can be artistic as well as technical and how it's accessible to them, perhaps as a career.
"It's not a week of geek camp," said Cinda Heeren, who is a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and a camp coordinator.
The camp was founded in 1994, and traditionally covered lots of different math and science topics.
When founder Edee Wiziecki retired, Heeren said, organizers saw it as a "an opportunity to get serious about outreach" specifically related to computer science.
Last week, 25 girls attended the camp's first session at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science. This week, 24 are attending. Many of them are local, but some are from the Chicago area and around the state, said Bri Chapman, who is a sophomore computer science student at the University of Illinois and the camp's other coordinator.
The camp also had a waiting list of almost 100 that included students from neighboring states, she said.
The camp is free for those participating, and Heeren said a promise was made to Wiziecki to keep it open to anyone.
Throughout the one-week sessions, campers are learning about computer science and how it applies to the food industry. However, they're also doing puzzles and other activities that require logical thinking, away from computers. They're also hearing from guest speakers who use computer science professionally, including software engineers and people who work in food systems, technical engineering and user interface design.
Sumayya Gurmen, who is 13 and lives in Savoy, said she liked hearing from those who used advanced technology in their work.
"You get an idea of how it's used in every day life," Gurmen said. Gurmen said she's also enjoying building apps and was working Wednesday on a drawing app using AppInventor. With it, you can select various background images and clear your drawings by shaking the tablet.
She got the idea from an tutorial within AppInventor and then built her own to be more advanced.
"You can use your imagination to make whatever you want," she said about using AppInventor. "Whatever I think of, I can put in it."
She's learned that when making apps, you have to be very specific about every single cause and effect.
She's also learned more than just about computers and technology, Gurmen said.
"I've learned that computer science isn't only with computers," she said. "It can be problem-solving or logical thinking."
The campers are picking up on the camp's lessons incredibly quickly, Chapman said, going through what she expected to be a week's material in the first day.
Chapman, who said studying computer science was "a natural move" after attending the camp herself seven years ago, said she wants the campers to see computer science as "a way to reach a massive audience quickly and to distribute (information) easily," she said.
"My goal is for them to see computing as a way to ... solve world problems," she said, adding that middle school students are very socially conscious.
The camp also incorporates music while students work and even the occasional dance break. That environment is reflective of the environments in which computer scientists actually work, Heeren said, and the field can be fun and creative.
"I can't imagine a more exhilarating thing to do, to control technology and use it for creative purposes and social good," Heeren said.
Computer science is typically a field dominated by men, although that's not something Heeren said has even been mentioned to those attending the camp.
"We want to be done with that," she said, and she doesn't want the campers to think of possible barriers.
There's also a need for educational opportunities involving computer science and young people, Heeren said. For example, the camp coordinators tried to find similar offerings in Chicago for those from that area who wanted to attend at UI.
They couldn't find any to recommend, she said.
Their efforts seem to be opening campers' eyes to the idea of working in the field.
Last week's participants completed a survey at the end of the week, answering an open-ended question unanimously that they're interested in computer science. They want to create apps, run simulations and work in other diverse fields related to computing.
"We care that they can consider it a possibility," Heeren said.