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NMSU's Young Women in Computing offers summer sessions for middle, high school girls

Vista Middle School seventh grader Alexia Hoffman is "catching bananas" at summer camp, but not the kind you eat. She is one of 74 middle and high school students developing computer games as part of the New Mexico State University's Young Women in Computing program this summer.

Middle school students work on creating a computer game at a summer session hosted by the NMSU Young Women in Computing program. The camp is designed to increase girls' interest in computer science and related fields, and exposes middle and high school students to coding and different software platforms. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

Four sessions offered this summer aim to increase female participation in computer science.

"Diversity is critical in every field, and women currently only make up 18 percent of all computing industry fields in the U.S.," said Becca Galves, program coordinator. "Girls and women are avid users of technology, but severely underrepresented in its creation. Technology increasingly permeates every aspect of society and provides the foundation for most modern innovation. Girls' lack of participation in this important and growing area has serious consequences, not only for them but for the future of technical innovations."

The outreach initiative is coordinated through NMSU's computer science department in the College of Arts and Sciences. The program provides young women exposure to computer coding, along with various software platforms and programs, including NetLogo TNG, Alice Animation, LilyPad Arduino and others.

Along with gaining exposure to different software platforms, the camps assist in instilling confidence in developing and designing new projects, Galves said.

One of the most challenging aspects of the summer camps is learning the coding concepts, said Susana Bali, camp instructor, which will benefit students who decide to major in computer science.

"If they want to go into the field, they'll already have the core concepts," she said.

"Whenever you start learning coding, you have to practice a lot," added Selters. "It's like a language."

Students from the camp will be writing their own programs, based on the concepts they've learned from the summer sessions.

All camp sessions are led by NMSU graduate and undergraduates, some of whom previously participated in the camp as high school students.

Instructor Linday Selters first participated in the camp her sophomore year of high school.

"When people think of computer science, they usually think of it as more of a guy-related field," she said. "A lot of girls don't even think about it as an option. With this program, we show that girls can do it. They don't have to be staring at a computer screen all day long. It takes a lot of creativity."

PicoCricket Robotics is one of the eight platforms taught through the camp. The program combines robotics and design programming with coding to introduce students to basic computer science concepts. Designers use light, sound and other types of sensors to build their own program and robot. Students were presented with the objective of building a catapult, which fires when a button is pushed on the touch sensor and resets itself.

Instructors dedicated the first half of the middle school's instruction program to Scratch Animation - part of which involved building a game.

"Scratch is a programming language and an online community where children can program and share interactive media such as stories, games and animations with people from all over the world," Galves said. "As children create with Scratch, they learn to think creatively, work collaboratively and reason systematically."

Students were also introduced to Hyper Text Markup Language, the basis for websites' design and construction. Using HTML, students learn how to create simple websites.

In her second year at the camp, Hoffman is working with a classmate to develop a computer game that involves "catching bananas, but not the rotten ones."

Hoffman said she might pursue a career in real estate or physical therapy, and that the summer course has taught her different ways to visualize math and science concepts.

Since it began in 2006, YWiC has reached 5,000 young women through more than 150 workshops and sessions. The program has funded 30 women to attend conferences and sponsored 23 teams in competitions.

"The camps are geared toward girls who are interested in computing and technology. If we can continue to grow the spark that already exists in using technology into a major or career, that's amazing," Galves said, adding that the computer technology industry will have more jobs than qualified employees over the next 15 years.

"It's an area that provides flexibility for family support and working from various environments, tremendous income potential, outstanding outlet for design and creativity, and a possible way to directly impact new innovations. The biggest benefit to students is confidence in developing and designing new projects. Successes are immediate and frequent and impact the overall self-efficacy of every young woman who participates. The exposure to the many software platforms creates the knowledge, skills and abilities to pay it forward and apply the experience to learning more programs."

Last year the group attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing for the fourth year in a row. Presented by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, the conference is designed to provide networking and mentoring opportunities for young women in computing and features technical sessions and keynote speakers.

Also in 2012 YWiC started Women and Minorities in Computing, a student organization. Members of the WaMiC are also active within the community and volunteer as tutors, organizing canned food drives and at events such as Relay for Life and March of Dimes.

Additionally, members of the organization participate in national conferences that include guest speakers and student competitions.

YWiC was originally funded by the National Science Foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing initiative. Sessions this summer are being funded by Intel, DataONE, GUTSyGirls and NCWIT AspireIT.

To learn more about Young Women in Computing, visit www.cs.nmsu.edu/ywic/, connect on Facebook at YWiC NMSU, or visit the YWiC Do It Yourself resource page at https://sites.google.com/site/ywicdiy/.