Stanford students share joys of computer science with girls

Girls Code Camp, a nonprofit group created by three Stanford students to offer introductory computer science workshops to more than 400 schoolgirls in Hyderabad, India, is now offering its second round of classes.

When Aashna Shroff was looking for partners to help create Girls Code Camp, she found two like-minded Stanford students equally dedicated to the task – and hard work – of forming an organization to teach computer programming to girls in India.

Shroff, along with John Kamalu and Akhila Moturu, were united by a common passion, not just for computer science, but also for sharing the joys of programming with girls.

Shroff, who grew up in India, studied computer science in high school after taking some online programming classes – at her older sister’s suggestion – and discovering that she really enjoyed it. Moturu, who grew up in Georgia, also studied computer science in high school after being invited to join the Technology Student Association – by a robot scooting around a school club fair with fliers.

Both were surprised there were so few girls in their computer science classes.

Kamalu, a computer science major who grew up in Seattle, had a personal reason for joining the project. He wanted his younger sister, a fledgling programmer who was one of only a few girls in summer computer camp, to gain confidence and success in the field.

“With Girls Code Camp, we wanted to inspire girls to take up computer science by introducing them to coding in fun and exciting ways, so that later, when it came time to choose classes or careers, they might consider computer science,” Moturu said.

“We also wanted to create communities of girls interested in computer science, so they would have peers to enjoy it with,” Shroff said.

The students applied for – and won – funding for Girls Code Camp from the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. They sought advice from computer science professors.

“Professor Eric Roberts was our official mentor, and he helped us with every single aspect of the project,” Moturu said. “We talked with him about grants and grant applications. We talked with him about designing the curriculum and what would be realistic to teach in the workshops given our time schedule.”

They also took inspiration from Girls Teaching Girls to Code, a student-run organization that hosts an annual summer code camp for high school girls. They also sought advice from the Stanford students who founded She++, which works with the technology industry to create a culture that is more appealing to women and works with women to dismantle harmful perceptions that they cannot succeed in the technology industry.

One of the biggest challenges the founders of Girls Code Camp faced was designing workshops that taught the fundamental concepts of computer science and were fun.

With Girls Code Camp, we wanted to inspire girls to take up computer science by introducing them to coding in fun and exciting ways, so that later, when it came time to choose classes or careers, they might consider computer science.

Akhila Moturu

They put their curriculum to the test last summer, when they conducted workshops for more than 400 girls enrolled in eighth, ninth and tenth grades in five schools in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern India state of Telangana – and Shroff’s hometown.

“We spent a few weeks before we started the workshops going over the curriculum and doing mock sessions in Hyderabad,” Shroff said. “We stayed together in my family’s house.”

When Girls Code Camp got underway, they spent a week – Monday through Saturday – at each of the schools. They offered three tracks for the students to choose from: mobile application development, web development and hands-on tinkering. Each track lasted two days. Since school was in session, the girls needed permission to attend.

The Stanford students said the “hands-on tinkering” workshops, which were designed to show that computer science was fun and creative, were especially entertaining.

In the workshops, the girls turned bananas into computer space bars – demonstrating that they could turn any everyday object that conducts electricity into an input device for their computers. They programmed sound effects for Styrofoam bodies they created for a makeshift version of Operation, the children’s board game in which alarms sound when a “surgeon” makes a mistake removing a body part. The also programmed songs to play on handmade cardboard guitars, a la Guitar Hero.

The Stanford students, who hope to create a sustainable foundation for Girls Code Camp, are back in Hyderabad this summer, offering a second round of workshops.

“This summer, our goal is to expand to schools with limited resources and students from low-income backgrounds,” Shroff said. “We are also expanding to schools outside Hyderabad.”

Moturu said teaching was a rewarding experience for all three Stanford students because it reaffirmed their interest in computer science.

“We gave the girls the power to do something they didn’t think they could do before,” she said.

“You could see the moment when girls realized they liked computer science. I remember when one girl said, ‘This is so cool. I can’t believe what just popped up on my screen.’ It took me back to a moment in ninth grade when the Pac-Man I had created ate one of the beans.  As a Stanford student, it’s easy for me to get lost in the work and the projects, and forget why I started studying computer science in the first place. Seeing these young girls get excited about it reminded me that I’m doing computer science because I love it. “

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