A Day at Code Camp

UChicago FEMMES brings computer science to Hyde Park girls.
Second-year Cassidy Heaton with a FEMMES student.
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015
We want to show them that they can do it, because they already know how to do it.
Emilee Urbanek
Curriculum Director of FEMMES

It’s yet another wintry afternoon in Cobb Hall, but today things look a little different. The people rushing about the hallways are a lot tinier than the regular collegiate crowd. They’re more cheerful and energetic too, even though there’s no coffee in sight. And nobody seems to be talking about Kant.

On this particular Saturday, Cobb is home to Code Camp, the capstone event for Females Excelling More in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (FEMMES). An offshoot of a club founded at Duke in 2006, FEMMES is a student organization devoted to helping local middle school girls develop key skills in computer science. The group has been working all year to bring 100 students from the Hyde Park area to campus for a daylong program full of speakers, snacks, and hands-on activities.

The day kicks off with a talk from keynote speaker Jenna Suarez of Code.org, a nonprofit that helps bring computer science education to groups underrepresented in the tech industry. Next the girls rotate through stations in Cobb, each designed to help them understand a key concept in programming. In one classroom, the students devise a method to find the lightest of a group of colored weights, using only their wits and a single balance scale—this lays the groundwork for teaching them about searching and sorting, two processing techniques essential to writing code. Across the hallway, other groups of girls make bracelets, play with mazes, and get acquainted with Scratch, a free programming language available online.

According to third-year Emilee Urbanek, the FEMMES board’s curriculum director, the goal of all these activities is to show the girls what it means “to think like a computer scientist.” The FEMMES team hopes to help students see past the stereotypes about what kind of person can be a programmer; they want them to learn that you don’t have to be a math genius to write code.

In order to combat that perception, the teachers at FEMMES “introduce concepts through things that the girls are already familiar with,” says Emilee, like making jewelry or weighing different objects. Emilee says kids come to Code Camp possessing many of the tools they need to think computationallythey just need to uncover those skills, “We want to show them that they can do it, because they already know how to do it.”

Emilee gets fired up when she talks about the mission of FEMMES, as do her fellow board membersthe rest of the team starts chiming in and cheering her on. For many of the students in the group, these issues hit close to home. Emilee is a computer science major here at the University; third-years Megan Renshaw and Alice Chang, president and vice-president of FEMMES respectively, study compsci too. As women in a male-dominated field, all three have faced challenges to their confidence.

Alice explains how females in STEM often develop something called impostor syndromea phenomenon in which competent women in competitive fields start to doubt their qualifications. Working in the tech industry last summer, Alice sometimes struggled to trust in her own abilities: “I definitely felt at times I was questioning whether I belonged there or whether I was as good as my male counterparts.” This experience highlighted for her the importance of having programs like FEMMES. “In order to retain and attract young girls into this pipeline,” she says, “you have to somehow make the atmosphere less hostile and more welcoming to people who are already told by society that they don’t belong.”

Emilee agrees, emphasizing that even successful, ambitious female compsci students like her, Alice, and Megan are still vulnerable to that pervasive feeling of self-doubt. “We’re still struggling through it and struggling through these societal norms that have somehow impacted each and every one of us. In order to make it so that we can be taken seriously, and so that we can consider ourselves good enough, it takes a special sort of encouragement that we want to bring...to girls starting at a young age.”

All three women note that they were lucky enough to have that encouragement built in to their upbringing. They credit inspiring teachers, parents, and siblings with helping them to realize their own potential as programmers. None of them set out to fall in love with codingMegan got into compsci thanks to her love of math, while Alice started playing with the HTML on her Neopets profilebut once they did, it stuck. Emilee speaks reverently about being “enveloped in the magic that is writing code”; Alice says of discovering compsci, “When I was programming it was so intuitive, it felt like I was just breathing.”

But for each of them, it took having a supportive environment to get them there. Megan reflects, “What really was crucial was that people encouraged me to pursue this and to try it out. I think that isn’t available to most people, and that’s why an event like FEMMES is great.”

The rest of the FEMMES board may not share the background of being women in STEM, but they still feel strongly about the importance of this undertaking. Richard Hanson and Gamal DeWeever (both third-year compsci majors) are the males in the group; Richard says they’re there to help their female counterparts in an inequitable field. “It’s ridiculous what you all have to go through and what you face. We’re more than happy to be here.”

Morgane Richer La Flèche, a fourth-year history major and the marketing director of FEMMES, doesn’t study computer science, but she still holds the mission of the organization close to her heart. “It’s not just about making computer science better for computer scientiststhis is a profoundly political issue. As more of our world moves online, that has economic, social, political ramifications; and if women are not the architects of the Internet, we’re gonna lose out in the long term,” she says. “We need to make sure that the Internet, that technology, represents who we are.”

That mission means starting early. As Morgane explains, “Part of the reason it’s middle school girls is because that’s really the age—around 13 years old—that girls self-select out of STEM….That’s definitely a crucial age at which it’s really important to say, you can do this, you can do CS, and here’s why you should find it interesting. That’s our intervention, if you will.”

This intervention began earlier this school year, when College student Sarah Li, AB’14 had the idea to bring FEMMES to UChicago with help from Megan. FEMMES chapters at Duke, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina incorporate math and science into their curriculum in addition to programming. As UChicago's own version took shape, the computer science leanings of its board members influenced its particular flavor—here the focus is exclusively on coding.

Code Camp, their recent capstone event, is only the first step in their plan to bring computer science training to the girls of Hyde Park. They’re working to develop a series of regular workshops that will allow their students to further delve into the world of programming, and in the process build a positive space for girls to pursue opportunities in compsci. The board has big plans already in the works, but they’re also open to ideas and contributions from any UChicago students interested in getting involved.

Thus far they’ve already found support for their efforts here at the University, from the administration to the faculty to the student body. A diverse team of enthusiastic volunteers did their part to help the capstone event run smoothly, and the UChicago Dean’s Fund (as well as other third-party sponsors) has helped cover their various expenses. The FEMMES board also credits computer science professors Adam Shaw and Borja Sotomayor with helping them develop their curriculum and secure sponsorship for Code Camp.

Professor Shaw, a former middle school teacher, says he “jumped at the chance” to help FEMMES bring computer science education to young girls in the community. His role was to be a sounding board as the group put together their curriculum: the student organizers created their own content and he provided a professor’s perspective.

He recognizes that FEMMES is up against a society built upon gender inequality, but sees the Code Camp event as one small but powerful way to help girls interested in STEM. “The more enrichment, the more education, the more experience they get, the better off they’re going to be,” Professor Shaw says,“I think investing in young people is always the right way to go.”

He's particularly excited about the FEMMES team’s commitment to bringing UChicago-style intellectual inquiry to the wider local community: “We are very rich in knowledge and education resources here...so I want to see them spilled over beyond our boundaries.”

The FEMMES board emphasizes that it’s not necessary to be a woman or a computer scientist to help serve this mission; anyone who wants to contribute is welcome. Through their volunteer-supported workshops, they intend to create an inclusive, sustainable tech learning environment that girls might not otherwise have access to. As Alice says: “We all had really supportive community figures in our lives, whether they were parents who didn’t treat sons and daughters differently, or teachers that were really wonderful and encouraging. That’s what pushed us into computer science, into an area that we might not otherwise be in. That’s what we want FEMMES to be, because not everyone is so fortunate to have that community strength in their life.”

Tagged: student life, community service