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Computer Science: Not Just a Man’s World

BU undergrads host new camp for high school girls

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Shebati Sengupta and Anagha Indic, both of Northborough, celebrate their robot’s arrival to the second level. Photo by Cydney Scott

Ita Kane was standing guard last week in front of a series of makeshift cardboard ramps, playing the role of what she called “bad coordinator” while groups of high school girls tested robotic cars they’d built and programmed from scratch.

“Hey, hey!” Kane (ENG’12) said to one group as they attempted to sneak past for another run up the ramp. Their car had nearly reached the highest level before stopping in its tracks.

“Please, it’s so close,” begged Amrita Vadhera, a freshman at the Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School (AMSACS) in Marlborough, clutching her LEGO contraption with tank treads.

“I’m cutting you off,” Kane said playfully.

Kane is one of five BU undergraduates coordinating a new computer science summer camp for ninth- and tenth-grade girls called the Artemis Project 2011. Over the course of five weeks, the undergrads guide high schoolers through programming activities in the morning, teach theory or host guest speakers in the afternoon, and lead field trips to places like the Museum of Science, the Broad Institute, and Microsoft’s New England Research & Development (NERD) Center each Friday. The purpose of the project is to get more teenage girls excited about computer science.

The Artemis Project began at Brown University in 1996 to “target young women at the critical age when the disparity between males and females in the sciences becomes most pronounced,” according to the project’s website. BU is the first university to which the project has expanded.

Cynthia Brossman, director of BU’s learning resource network (LERNet), serves as advisor to the undergraduate Artemis coordinators. She has researched the apparent gap in interest between boys and girls and notes they engage with computers in different ways. While boys become fascinated with computers, girls take an “arm’s length” approach and don’t want to “obsess about them at the expense of developing social dimension,” Brossman says. “There’s the stereotype of the geek who is very knowledgeable about computers, but unable to navigate social relationships. Girls don’t want to be perceived in this way.”

There are other issues preventing girls from fully engaging with computers.

“If girls are in class with these boys, they’re outnumbered and probably don’t have the same level of knowledge or expertise and begin to feel insecure or like they don’t belong,” Brossman said. “At this age, when they’re developing their sexual identity, if computers are male dominated, then they don’t want to be associated with that, because they want to be seen as feminine.

“The other perception is that people who work on computers sit in a room all day by themselves and write code,” Brossman continued. “Nowadays it’s more collaborative. There really are social dimensions to this work.”

Girls, Brossman adds, are interested in the “helping” professions and often are not aware that computers can be used to address people’s problems and needs. “They get excited when they see that computers have this capability and potential,” she says.

At BU, women account for just a sliver of the enrollment in the computer science program. In 2006, the University admitted a total of 21 students, only five of whom were women, according to Kelly Walter, assistant vice president and executive director of admissions. This fall, Walter expects to enroll 25 students, only one of whom is female.

Brossman began working to bring Brown’s Artemis Project to BU after learning about it from Margrit Betke and Leo Reyzin, both College of Arts & Sciences professors of computer science. She solicited grants from the National Science Foundation and Google Community Grants and secured additional funding from BU’s Office of the Provost and the Rafik Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering to cover most of the project’s costs.

In preparation for the launch, BU sent Katherine Zhao (CAS’12) to Brown last summer to shadow Artemis coordinators there. The senior was impressed by how much the girls blossomed while at camp. “I think one of the important impacts that we made is the amount of confidence you can see that grows in this bunch of girls,” she said.

Back in Boston, Zhao recruited four friends in computer science and engineering as co-coordinators—Kane, Sarah Hall (CAS’12), Kim Win (CAS’12), and Durrah Almansour (CAS’13). They created a website, made flyers, tweaked Brown’s curriculum, and booked guest speakers like IBM’s Denise Dodge, Microsoft’s Edwin Guarin, and several BU professors in computer science and engineering.

Meanwhile Brossman promoted the program throughout the Boston area by hosting informational events, contacting organizers of science programs for girls, and writing high school and middle school teachers who nominated their own students. Her efforts paid off. Twenty-two girls from public, private, and charter schools are attending the inaugural year—some driving nearly an hour each way.

Shirley Zhou, of Jamaica Plain, Erica Yuen, of Winchester, and Suma Anand, of Newton, build Spaz, their LEGO MINDSTORMS robot. Photo by Cydney Scott.

Shirley Zhou, of Jamaica Plain, Erica Yuen, of Winchester, and Suma Anand, of Newton, build Spaz, their LEGO MINDSTORMS robot. Photo by Cydney Scott.

The camp has been a crash course in computer science. While most girls came in with a basic understanding of computers (capable of word processing and surfing the Web), Win said they have since learned to “speak” four programming languages. Girls made Mickey Mouse graphics with Java, created their own websites using HTML (several on K-Pop, or Korean pop music), developed ColorWalls in Python, and built robots using NQC and LEGO MINDSTORMS kits. They even learned some “baby hacking.” “We’re not going to teach them to do anything bad,” Hall said.

Morning activities always overlap with afternoon theoretical discussions. “Computer science is not just about computers,” Zhao said. “It’s about using computers to solve problems.”

Just before noon on a recent Tuesday, Artemis girls huddled in small groups around computers and the guts of LEGO robotic cars. They had to program the machines, rigged with touch and light sensors, to navigate a cardboard maze positioned in the back corner of a Photonics Center classroom.

“I kept thinking of an algorithm but it doesn’t need an algorithm,” said Shebati Sengupta, an AMSACS freshman.

Ariane Curtin-Bown, a Boston University Academy sophomore, suggested programming the car to turn each time it hit a maze wall. “The first time it takes a right, the third time it takes a left,” she said.

“So how do we program that?” asked Erica Yuen, a Winchester High School sophomore.

The trio divided tasks and nearly had a new code completed before lunch. Sengupta said she’s enjoyed every aspect of the camp so far. Before Artemis, she wanted to pursue biology or computer science. But a field trip to the Broad Institute opened her eyes.

Sengupta smiled broadly: “I learned I could do both together.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Computer Science: Not Just a Man’s World

  • Anonymous on 07.27.2011 at 9:35 am

    Of course girls are interested in science

    Yesterday, I wrote that the disparity between the # of photos depicting boys vs. girls actively involved in BU engineering projects favored the boys 10 to 4. It’s wonderful to read about this program for girls. These types of single-sex programs are the way to make it easy for the teachers to play fair and emotionally support girls’ intellectual development. HOWEVER, I disagree that girls are struggling with their sexual identities, being brainwashed into the “helping” professions or thinking about being feminine any more than their male peers are struggling with their own gender-specific issues. I think the disparity between boys and girls has to do with teaching and their teachers’ attitudes and insights. If a teacher only makes eye contact with the boys and leans forward while listening to them and doesn’t bother to show interest in what the girls have to say, you cannot seriously believe that a girl’s sexual identity is at fault and responsible for her lack of confidence in a particular academic subject. Harvard ran a study many years ago and found that their professors usually looked their male students in the eyes and leaned forward and engaged in the conversation; whereas, they looked up and away from their female students as the women spoke. Hey! Let’s think about what WE do to encourage and discourage girls. Do you call your female graduate students GIRLS? or WOMEN? It does make a difference. And I’m not saying this PLAYFULLY…

  • Girl on 07.27.2011 at 9:37 am

    On "our developing sexual identity"

    Funnily enough, none of us care about how men see us as girls in the computer science world.

    This article focused on the controversial, rather than the beneficial parts of the program (such as having the opportunity to learn CS). We didn’t see (or feel) any of the “issues” you said were predominant in the CS world. Next time, try talking about what we’re actually doing.

    Show the good side of Artemis and the fun of it, not the reasons why you think we joined (or reason why we wouldn’t).

  • I for one support our Female Overlords on 07.27.2011 at 11:13 am

    I wholeheartedly support these types of programs that introduce not so popular fields to an audience. Computer science as a whole seems boring for many people and thus not as appealing as say Medicine or law. However, these types of projects highlights the pros of the computer science field and teaches the fundamentals of the said field. All in all i for one support our upcoming Female leaders in Computer Science. Way to go!!

  • Stan Sclaroff on 07.27.2011 at 11:46 am

    more women in CS

    This is a wonderful program for high school students to learn about computer science. We are grateful to Cynthia Brossman and the undergraduate students who have so successfully launched and led the Artemis program at BU. Bravo!

    The underrepresentation of women in CS has been recognized as a national problem for many years. According to the latest Computing Research Association’s annual Taulbee Survey, only 13.8% of the CS Bachelor’s degree recipients in the US in 2009-2010 were female. Clearly, there is a huge untapped population of curious, talented, and energetic potential computer scientists out there! The BU CS Department, like many CS departments across the country, has been working to address the gender gap. There is still much more to be done.

    I’m not sure that the numbers for the BU entering freshman class paint a complete picture of CS enrollments at BU. According to the BU Link, there are 189 CS majors in CAS as of today. Of these 189 CS majors, 43 are women (roughly 23%). This is still way below what we are aiming for, but much better than the national average of 13.8%.

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