Computer Science: Not Just a Man’s World
BU undergrads host new camp for high school girls
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
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.”4 Comments