Illinois AspireIT Program: GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math & Science)

This guest post was written by Briana Chapman, an NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing recipient and leader of one of our pilot AspireIT programs, addressing the lack of women in technology by actively engaging middle school girls with computing.

The Girls Engaged in Math and Science Aspire IT camp was held June 17-21 and 24-28, 2013, on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Forty-nine middle school girls were welcomed by Camp Leader and Aspirations in Computing Recipient Briana Chapman, UIUC faculty member Dr. Cinda Heeren, and GEMS assistants Hanan Jaber, Jenny Ye, and Marrissa Faler.

At GEMS 2013, participants used Google's Nexus 7 tablet (purchased through an AspireIT grant) alongside MIT’s App Inventor to develop mobile apps relating to food systems and sustainability. The end-of-week celebration included an Open House of Apps where participants proudly showed off their apps to friends and family. The Open House included a raffle with prizes from Google. Our week included visits from software engineers, designers, and food specialists to help the girls design and build their apps. Throughout the week, participants enjoyed fun, active, and engaging computer science games and activities to learn concepts like algorithms, information theory, and binary search. They created a sustainable, locally grown lunch, and learned how to calculate the cost of "food miles" or how much it costs to transport food from its origin to our plates. We also talk about wasted food along the production line and what can be done to prevent it.

The week included lots of gifts for the participants from tech giants (and program supporters) including Facebook, Google, Intel, Cisco, Northropp Grumman, NCWIT, and many others which are already interested in GEMS participants' creativity, intelligence, and enthusiasm and hope to encourage them to pursue careers in computing.

Monday afternoon, participants were treated to snacks from the Common Ground Food Co-Op during a presentation about the many benefits of organic and locally-sourced foods. Presenter Kristi Emilsson brought along plenty of technology currently used in the store, including an iPhone with a scanner case, which is used for inventory.

On Tuesday, Senior Lecturer Cinda Heeren led interactive graph coloring activities, which included life-sized graphs and a mysterious “Automatic Graph Coloring Machine.” Stephanie Farrell, an Infrastructure Analyst at John Deere, provided insight regarding food challenges the world faces and the technology John Deere uses to tackle those issues.

Wednesday's activities included an interactive Computer Science Roadshow with Jana Diesner, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. This vibrant presentation included many group puzzle-solving activities, and was focused around computational thinking.

On Thursday, we participated in a Google Hangout with Madelin Woods, a front-end engineer at Square. She discussed how Square benefits locally-owned food suppliers, such as Farmer’s Market vendors and small restaurants. Participants also took a field trip to the Illinois Sustainable Student Farm’s weekly sale to experience a mini-farmer’s market and talk with the growers first hand.

Maya Bruck from Pixo joined us on Friday for a fun-filled talk on the importance of well-designed mobile apps. Even with our busy schedule, the girls had time to create fantastic Android apps and our Open House of Apps was brimming with proud parents and even prouder girls, showing off the apps they made throughout our week.

One of the most important goals of the GEMS program is to foster new relationships and teamwork. In order to help the girls rely on each other and learn to effectively use outside sources, there were short periods of time during which instructors would not respond to technical questions. While there was some initial frustration, it took less than five minutes for teamwork to develop, with girls getting up to talk with new-found friends on the opposite side of the room about an issue, or going to aid a peer in need.

Of course, to celebrate the fantastic team work, the GEMS program also focuses on fun and enjoying the learning environment. There were several spontaneous dancing events that helped lighten the mood and keep the participants motivated and energized. Participants were given a daily survey to measure whether the goals of the program have been accomplished. When asked to compare themselves before GEMS and after the camp, there were some incredible responses.

“I would have been happy to see two surveys out of the 25 that said, ‘I want to be a CS major,’” said Heeren. “But it was unanimous. Each and every girl said something like: I didn’t know how to use apps; now I want to make apps. I didn’t know computer science could change the world. Every single one of them had some remarkable contrast that showed that they got it.”

To see photos from this AspireIT camp, check out Briana's Flickr set here.

Briana is a 2012 Aspirations in Computing National Award Runner-Up and a 2012 Illinois Affiliate Award winner. She is from Central Illinois, and is currently a sophomore pursuing Math & Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She interns at the Office for Math, Science, and Technology Education.