Logo: University of Southern California

Coding Like a Girl

USC Viterbi's Department of Computer Science held a free all-girl summer coding camp for K-12 students
By: Natalia Velez
June 16, 2015 —

Image: Courtesy of Professor Jeff Miller
To think that girls are good at humanities and boys are good at science is a common, yet unfounded stereotype. Nonetheless, it is all over the media, which constantly presents girls with portraits of the ideal, desirable woman. This woman is often a teacher, doctor or nurse, but rarely, if ever, an engineer.

Hoping to encourage girls to become interested in computer science and buck stereotypes, the USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science offered a free all-girl coding camp during the first two weeks of June, directed towards girls from underserved groups and underperforming schools.

“There is nothing innate to men that makes them better at science than women,” said USC Viterbi Professor Jeff Miller, director of the programming camp. “The digressions between genders are often based on labels.”

The camp was made possible by the generous donation by Kathy Kemper, CEO and director of the Institute for Education, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. An advocate for girls in STEM herself, Kemper believes that one of the keys to getting them interested in technology is giving them role models.

Along those lines, USC Viterbi’s coding camp was not solely focused on programming. It was also aiming to break down stereotypes about girl engineers, presenting its students with a group of tutors composed of seven women and only two men.

“If we want to get girls interested in computer science, we need to show them what women in the field can do,” Kemper said. “After all, any girl that wants to be in the board room, sit at the big table or run a company is going to have to know about technology.”

During camp, students wrote a simple computer program using basic programming constructs such as variables, conditions and loops. There were also spaces dedicated to discussions about all the importance of science and math in a variety of fields.

Bonnie Jia and Robyn To, two of the camp's instructors.  (Photo Credit: Natalia Velez)

“Unfortunately, computer science is an alien world for many women,” said Shweta Pargaonkar, one of the USC Viterbi computer science master’s students who served as a camp tutor. “I believe that it is key to encourage girls to immerse themselves in technology and what better way to start than a coding camp dedicated specially to girls!”

Even though the camp had a strong focus on educating girls, it was also open to children belonging to other underrepresented demographics, such as African Americans, Latinos and low-income families.

Focusing on demographics that aren’t normally exposed to computer science represents endless possibilities, camp supporters said. For instance, people coming from different cultures bring different, enriching perspectives to problems. This can make the field more diverse and ultimately help it grow, as it will be taking new ideas into account.

Going forward, all workers will increasingly have to master technology. Future professionals will need much more than basic understanding of computers to succeed in the Information Age, which is why USC’s free summer coding camp was an empowering initiative that the department hopes to expand in the future.

“Programming Summer Camp is a very exciting initiative, and the fact that USC is exposing these children to an entirely new world will definitely influence their future,” Kemper said.