Camp at UI aims to get girls focused on computing
URBANA — Calla Carter, then an excited 14-year-old, arrived at a computer science camp in Connecticut, checked in to the girls cabin and wondered, where is everyone?
Turns out she was the single girl out of 60 campers attending the camp.
"I was all on my own," she said of the experience from several years ago.
Now 18 years old with plans to major in computer science this fall at Bryn Mawr College, Carter has dedicated most of her summer to mentoring the young girls attending a camp on the University of Illinois College of Engineering campus.
"I really wanted to give back to everyone who has helped me," Carter said.
GEMS, or Girls Engaged in Math and Science, has been offered on the UI campus for 19 years as mostly a one-week experience to expose girls to science. This year organizers shifted more of the focus to computing and expanded it to six, one-week sessions in topics like wearable computing, astronomy and sustainable foods.
"It's been really fun," said Amina Gurmen of Savoy, who attended last year's camp and was thrilled to learn it was extended this year. "I really like this week's theme, wearable technology, and making the tiles online," she said about her design.
Women make up more than half of the world's population, more than half of the U.S. workforce but only a minority major in computer science in college or go on to careers in computing, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. During the last academic year at the UI, women comprised only 11 percent of undergraduates in the Department of Computer Science, about 23 percent of graduate students and about 14 percent of the tenure-system faculty.
"We never give the girls any numbers. It's just that, that almost sets up the barrier. We're about showing them how much fun computing can be and how creative it can be," said camp director and computer science lecturer Cinda Heeren.
This week's theme of wearable technology blends two different spaces — coding/computing and the art of making stuff, or the "maker/tinkerer" movement.
It's an approach that has been catching on around the country. Last Friday Google launched "Made with Code," an initiative to encourage girls to make cool stuff by learning different programming languages. Google's project, and the camp, aim to show girls "what you love is really made with code," and coding can be used for personal self expression, Heeren said.
None of the projects are out of reach; all of them can be done as a craft at home with a few materials and a computer, she said.
In addition to learning code this week, the girls have listened to guest speakers talk about Persian rugs, colorful Guatemalan textiles and they've made quilt blocks out of hexagons. There's a connection between the wearable technology projects they do in class and what traditionally has been called "women's work."
"Knitting is code!" Heeren said.
Each week about 25 girls attend the free camp. Public and private schools are represented, as well as some home-schooled girls. Four undergraduate female students from the UI help out during the camp.
"I would have loved to have been a camper" as a young girl, said Abigail Steitz, a computer science and math major at the UI who is helping at the camp. She has enjoyed showing the girls how to work through problems and debugging code, working through any errors that come up. The point is to show the girls "not everybody knows everything," she said.
"It's nice to be able to help the girls. It goes beyond the curriculum, though, sometimes just sitting with them and letting them ask me questions," Carter said.
The camp is entirely free for the students thanks to financial support from the UI's Department of Computer Science, private donations and in-kind donations from companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Groupon,