July 5, 2017

Students at Girls – Only Computer Camp Come Up With Creative Apps

GIRL POWER: As part of their five days at appsForGirls computer camp, 21 middle school girls spent a day visiting the Tigerlabs innovation center on East Nassau Street and heard encouraging words about working in coding.

Girls tend to get short shrift when it comes to computer science. Just ask Grace Zhang, a Princeton High School rising junior who last week ran a new, five-day tech camp for middle school girls with an interest in coding.

Armed with a $3,000 grant from the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) AspireIT program, Grace put together a program designed to encourage young girls to pursue computer science. Twenty-one area tweens attended appsForGirls, developing apps in the high school’s computer lab, hearing talks from experts, visiting Princeton’s Tigerlabs innovation center, and, finally, presenting their own apps at a farewell ice cream party.

It was all part of the enterprising Ms. Zhang’s effort to give girls an introduction to tech through app development — in a supportive environment. The results of this first initiative were so positive that a second camp for next summer is already in the works.

“When we started final projects on the third day, I really did not go in expecting much,” Grace said in an email. “For some of the girls, the camp was their first coding experience, and it was unreasonable to expect them to produce fully-functioning apps after two days of instruction. However, I was fortunately wrong. Although most of the groups had problems at one time or another with code not working, in the end all 10 final projects ran successfully due to hard work from everyone, which is huge.”

Among the final products: “Pick up Poop,” teaching users to clean up after their pets; “Just Breathe,” helping people with social anxiety disorder; “Trendy Girl,” help with putting outfits together while encouraging self confidence,” and “Cupcake Go,” a coloring book of cupcakes.

It cost $50 to attend the camp. Some scholarships were made available. Next year, Grace hopes to run two sessions to meet the demand. “More than 50 girls signed up this year, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough funding to accommodate all of them,” she said. “So we are looking forward to examining the program in the future to reach as many girls as possible. We may hold multiple sessions next year for different age groups since the age range this year, fourth to eighth grade, was a bit big.”

Both of Grace’s parents are computer scientists. But she wasn’t anxious to follow in their footsteps. Her parents are “pretty nerdy,” which made her look for something different, she said.

“But the truth was, I actually had no idea what computer science was,” she said. “When I was registering for high school classes during eighth grade, there weren’t many elective options. So I was like, oh well, I guess I’ll give coding a try. I was really unconfident about my coding abilities my freshman year, but [teacher] Mrs. [Graciela] Elia was super engaging and passionate. In Java, she gave us some assignments that were pretty tough but also really cool, and I slowly worked at them till I got better and better. I just finished AP Computer Science as a sophomore and grew to love the moment you finally fix the bug you’ve been looking for forever and getting your program to work.”

Last November, Grace applied for the NCWIT Aspiration Award for female high school students doing interesting things in technology. She won. “I was added to the Aspiration community, where tons of other girls just like me around the nation shared opportunities, resources, advice, work, and accomplishments,” she said. “So many girls had built robots, developed websites, created apps, and written algorithms that impacted others and saved lives. I was so humbled and inspired. It was then I started realizing that this was something I wanted to go into for the next 50 years of my life.”

With the help of her teacher Ms. Elia, Grace won a grant and started the camp.

“I can’t imagine how I would have ended up if I hadn’t given coding a shot,” she said. “In middle school, I thought computer science was an intimidating realm for boys that I had never been really exposed to before. Like many other girls, I was a perfectionist and scared of trying new things and possibly being bad at them. Going into computer science has opened so many doors for me, and I want to do the same for other girls.”