Mornings spent building mobile applications. Afternoons brushing elbows with corporate leaders. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at the role technology plays in places like the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. This isn’t your typical summer camp, and not just because it’s happening during the school year.
More than 70 girls from three states and 34 schools applied for the chance to join Code Crush for the last weekend of March. University of Nebraska-Omaha’s College of Information Science and Technology faculty and staff geared the five-day event to cultivate an interest with information technology among 8th and 9th grade girls.
The girls spent four days and five nights exploring the many faces of information technology through hands-on workshops, field trips, and panels. The middle-school students also got their first taste of college life thanks to staying on the UNO campus. Meanwhile, event organizers hoped the inaugural Code Crush would help debunk some myths surrounding the IT profession.
Code Crush is part of a larger effort by UNO to attract more participation from underrepresented groups in IT—particularly women. Hesham H. Ali, Ph.D., professor and dean in the College of Information Science and Technology, says that women make up only 12-13 percent of IS&T students. He says numbers are slightly higher at the graduate level thanks to a boost from international enrolees.
Researchers at UNO are working with community groups, schools, and the National Science Foundation to figure out the cause of this considerable gender gap. Ali attributes misconceptions about IT careers as a major factor. “Still there is that image of IT professionals working alone in a dark room writing code,” he says. “People think there’s no interaction or opportunity to make a social impact. Really it’s a lot more than just writing code alone. If we can just get that information out, it might have an impact on changing the image.”
“IT has a great potential to impact society,” adds Deepak Khazanchi, associate dean and professor in the College of Information Science and Technology. “It already has. If you look at the internet, ATMs, even computers in cars—it’s pervasive.” But, Khazanchi says people don’t realize how much technology is a part of everyday life and that by working in the field, they can in fact make a significant difference.
That sentiment is exactly what drew Westside Middle School 8th-grader Ketevan Mdzinarishvili to Code Crush. Computers, she explains, help people to shape a better understanding of the world around them. “The complexity of every microchip shows…there are many possibilities in this world. And I want to explore all of the ones which I am able. Any chance I have to learn about a new career field I would like to take,” Mdzinarishvili says.
Mdzinarishvili, like all the Code Crush students, was accompanied by a teacher who wrote a letter of recommendation for her during the application process. The event was completely free to students. Mentors received a stipend to attend, thanks to funding from industry partners, and attended some sessions with their students. Sessions even included a bioinformatics exercise where students extracted DNA from strawberries while their teachers learned how to incorporate new activities into their curriculums.
“Part of the myth has to be resolved at the teacher’s level,” Ali says. “They are the ones connecting students, so talking to counselors, teachers, advisors is really important.”
Secondary Coordinator of Excellence in Youth programs at Westside Middle School Kristen Job, who is Mdzinarishvili’s mentor, says she’s excited about the opportunity for not only her student but also for herself. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to program and code,” she says. Computer programming isn’t offered at the middle school level, so it’s a chance for both of them to learn a new skill that can be shared when they return to school.
Such real world examples are important for encouraging other women to explore IT careers, according to Kate Dempsey, Research Associate in the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics at UNO.
Dempsey works in the field of bioinformatics, which she describes as a combination of biology, math, coding, and computer science, with a little bit of physics and theoretical science thrown in the mix. Dempsey talked to the girls about her work but also about all of the great female scientists that came before her.
“It’s so important to me to get the word out that there are amazing female scientists out there,” she says. “They’re just not as well known. The more that you learn about these important women in IT and sciences, it kind of drives you to say, ‘Well I can do it, too.’”
The women who do end up enrolling in UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology tend to excel, Ali says. In fact, the top student for the past several years has been a woman. But misconceptions about IT careers can stop some women from pursuing that course of education before they even get to the door.
“Research has shown that diversified groups are more productive and more creative, particularly in IT,” Ali says. “We need to have teams that come from different ideas and backgrounds so they can contribute in a more productive and creative way.”