TECH Camps: Computer Science for Girls

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Kylie Moden took her first computer programming class as a sophomore at Lake Travis High School in Austin. The summer before her junior year, with just two semesters of computer science under her belt, she created two iOS apps: a personalized grade calculator and a bell schedule app.

TECH Camps program founder Kylie Moden. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

TECH Camps program founder Kylie Moden. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Often the only woman in her advanced placement computer science classes, the young techie became involved with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

“It can be a lonely life,” said Moden, “and having that company (of other girls) is really valuable.”

She won the organization’s Central Texas-affiliate Aspirations in Computing award, which celebrates girls with a passion for computing, as a junior, and the next year as a senior became the runner up for the national award.

“At the time, I was just really excited to get an award, ” she said, “but over time I realized how great of an organization (NCWIT) is. We support each other, and encouragement from other women in the group kept me with computer science and helps me (though) those times that I do doubt myself or get that ‘imposter syndrome’ feeling. I can lean on this group of girls who’ve been there before.”

Composed of women of all ages and stages in the field – both younger and older, still in high school or with years of work experience – becoming involved with NCWIT seemed like a natural step for Moden, a longtime Girl Scout passionate about mentoring and passing on knowledge to other girls.

The Trinity University Center for Sciences and Innovation and the "Cube." Photo by Miriam Sitz.

The Trinity University Center for Sciences and Innovation and the “Cube.” Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Now a first year at Trinity University, the confident and well spoken young woman is at it again, taking initiative right out of the gates to establish the school’s first ever Women in Computing group.

Paul Myers, Ph.D., chair of the Trinity University computer science department, reported that of the 52 declared computer science majors at Trinity, 15 (about 29 percent) are women, and he estimates that an 30 additional undeclared first years and sophomores will become majors.

“I do think that women’s enrollment is increasing,” Myers said, “so I would not be surprised if of the estimated 82, over 30 percent were women.” He called that a “very substantial increase” over the past 20 to 30 years, as data even from a period as recent as 2004 to 2010 shows the percent of female comp sci majors at Trinity hovering around 11 percent.

Myers also described the ratios of male to female students who are awarded the prestigious Babbage/Lovelace Distinguished Computing Award, presented to one or two graduating seniors each year. Since 2009, the award has gone to five men and four women—“And remember,” he said, “in the earlier years, there were quite a bit fewer women majors. Maybe even as low as 10 to 15 percent some years.”

These numbers may indicate that fewer women study computer science, they prove equally adept as their male counterparts. To that point, Moden lamented the fact that so many young, pre-college age girls never explore computer science and programming. “They don’t even know they would like it—they don’t take the classes because they have preconceived notions of what it is,” she said.

A Trinity Encouraging Computing for Her (TECH) Camp team hard at work. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

A Trinity Encouraging Computing for Her (TECH) Camp team hard at work. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Indeed, for many, the phrase “computer science” calls to mind lines of symbols as unintelligible as hieroglyphics, and blinding computer screens flickering in dimly lit rooms. But to her, coding is a “medium for anything you want to do, any problem you want to solve”—a way to express herself creatively.

“We can’t just say, ‘We want more women in computer science,’” stated Moden, “We have to reach out to them and get them excited about it.” Unsurprisingly, that’s just what she did.

Moden applied for a grant through NCWIT to establish a computing camp for middle school aged girls in San Antonio: Trinity Encouraging Computing for Her or TECH Camps. After drawing up a proposal complete with budget, timeline, curriculum and purpose, Moden received full grant funding, $3,000, to put on a camp for 20 to 30 girls, and began visiting area schools to recruit participants.

The three weekend-long TECH Camps brought 23 seventh and eighth grade girls to the striking Trinity Center for Sciences and Innovation “Cube” and concluded this past weekend, culminating in a Saturday-to-Sunday overnight stay on campus.

Most participants paid a nominal $50 fee for the entire camp (10 scholarships were available but only three students applied), more to encourage attendance than anything, according to Moden.

Participants worked in teams to create Android apps that address a social issue, using MIT App Inventor, a free software program created to help teach kids the basic principals of programming. One group devised a dyslexia-awareness program that displays text altered to resemble what a dyslexic person might see, while another team designed a virtual reality game that allows users to construct a home and donate to Habitat for Humanity.

Kylie Moden with TECH Camps program assistants Rachel Jones and Sam LaVallee. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Kylie Moden with TECH Camps program assistants Rachel Jones and Sam LaVallee. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

In addition to developing apps, the students  dabbled in 3D printing, heard mini lectures from faculty members such as Myers on the importance of college and opportunities in computer science, and explored wearable tech such as LilyPad sewable circuit technology, the famous CuteCircuit Twitter Dress and Google Glass, which Moden and her team are demoing for the participants.

Two other Trinity computer science majors served alongside Moden as program assistants: junior Sam LaVallee and a fellow first year Rachel Jones, a double major in engineering.

The three oversaw every logistic detail of bringing the camp to fruition—which, in Moden’s case, came on top of taking 19 hours and an internship with Venture Lab.

“It’s so rewarding now that we’re doing it and seeing them get so excited,” said Moden, who plans to apply for funding again next year.

The second iteration of TECH Camps may expand on the current program or perhaps offer a year-round option: TECH Clubs, which would allow girls to meet on a regular basis with Moden and other mentors to continue developing their apps or work on other, independent computer science projects.

Though graduation is a few years away for Kylie Moden, the future already looks bright. Following an internship this summer in Mountainview, Calif., with Google, Moden will return to Trinity where she’s minoring in entrepreneurship. The self-starter dreams of one day founding her own software company or developing her own product.

“But,” she added, “I am so into reaching out and being a ‘tech evangelist,’ if that’s what you want to call it, that I’m definitely going to keep working with women in computing. I don’t ever see myself stopping.”

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