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New Mexico State University

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Computer science program helps middle and high school girls learn life skills

The Young Women in Computing program at NMSU is putting more than technical skills in the hands of young girls in the community; it's preparing them for college life and beyond.



Students from the 2009 Young Women in Computing camp sit with their LEGOŽ NXT Robotics project. (Photo courtesy Rachel Jensen)

The program, out of the computer science department, aims to address the growing deficit of women in the field of computer science. It began as a five-week summer camp for local high schoolers, but has expanded to include middle school outreach through an undergraduate mentoring program.

"Three undergrad assistants helped develop the curriculum for the middle school students on robotics combined with arts and crafts," said YWiC Program Coordinator Rachel Jensen, adding that the recent development for middle school outreach so far has consisted of "roadshows" and mini-camps.

Roadshows bring the technology of PicoCricket robotics and Scratch animation into middle school classrooms to showcase one of the many aspects of computer science.

The summer camps for high school students have a curriculum consisting of Alice animation, LEGOŽ NXT Robotics, Web programming, bioinformatics and programming with LilyPad Arduino. Working in groups, students put together presentations for faculty, staff and their families.

During the summer camp, students earn college credit and are paid for their time. After the camp and throughout the year, YWiC schedules monthly seminars where successful women in the field of computer science give presentations on college, finding the balance between family and work, and their particular journey in life,

"The monthly seminars keep you interested in the program," said Stephanie Garcia, YWiC undergraduate research assistant and member of the first cohort of high school students in 2006. "My biology teacher told me to get involved with it. I didn't even know what computer science was until I was in the program."

According to Jensen, by the time most young women enter into middle school or junior high they begin to lose interest in computer science as the market is geared more toward young men. In high school, interest in going to college to pursue a degree in computer science has declined even more. A presentation by Garcia and the two other undergraduate research assistants, Mauri Jones and Nicole Ray, reveals the percentage of women currently majoring in computer science is at its lowest point since the 1970s.

"Computer science is so multifaceted; in any field there is some degree of computer science," Jensen said. "That's what we try to show them."

Giving students opportunities to cultivate their growing interest in computer science is just one of the purposes of the program. YWiC also aims to promote diversity and is successful in doing so because NMSU can and does cater to a large Hispanic population.

The presentation given this year by Garcia, Jones and Ray at the Grace Hopper Conference, a celebration of women in computing, collected data from the past three years since the program has been active. It reported the number of applicants has grown from 30 in 2007 to 61 in 2009. Also, YWiC participants make up 10 percent of the current number of females enrolled in computer science at NMSU.

"It's been really successful, so we're going to do what we have to in order to keep it going," Jensen said. "Our goal is to have it become institutionally funded."

The program is currently funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation under the Broadening Participation in Computing Program, an initiative to introduce underrepresented groups into computer science.

For more information on YWiC visit http://cs.nmsu.edu/ywic.