COLLEGE PARK — After the mother of biological twins Alexis and Mikaila Esuke found the Maryland Center for Women in Computing’s (MWCIC) summer camp’s, the girls decided to give it a try.
They went through a three-year program, one of the center’s many summer camps, where they learned about computer science, cybersecurity, programming and more.
The girls stuck with the program and graduated this year as co-valedictorians of Bowie High School. Both have committed to the University of Maryland to pursue STEM degrees and are spending their summer volunteering at the school assisting with the summer camps.
“That program had a really tremendous impact on our lives. I think I speak for both of us when I say this, and the program really helped us confirm that we both like STEM,” Alexis said. “It helped us feel confident going into the STEM field because Mikaila and I both feel comfortable going into engineering now.”
To fill the gender gap in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and computing fields, the University of Maryland hosts a series of summer camps for girls to build their interest in computer sciences.
The Maryland Center for Women in Computing (MCWIC) holds a total of 13 different camps for elementary through high school girls, said MCWIC Director Jan Plane.
There are three camps each week for the entire summer. Among the camps, students will learn about things like cyber defense, artificial intelligence and programming for Android devices.
One of the camps is JumpStart Computing Elementary Camp, where elementary school students have the opportunity to participate in an interactive learning experience in computing, robotics and cybersecurity. Another camp the MCWIC offers is AI4All, which is a three-week-long, residential computer programming and artificial intelligence summer camp.
The main camp that the MCWIC offers is CompSciConnect, Plane said. This a three-year summer camp designed for middle school students. It includes a two-week summer program where each summer, students learn more advanced skills and one weekend per month throughout the school year to maintain those skills.
CompSciConnect started during the summer of 2012, a year before the MCWIC officially established. The philosophy of the program is to teach students the breadth of computing.
As part of this camp, students learn things like creating web pages, developing virtual reality games, number theory, converting binary numbers and cybersecurity and safety.
The goal in CompSciConnect is to show how computing connects to everything else as well as connect the students, Plane said.
“One thing the research shows is that students from the populations that are currently underrepresented in computing often don’t want to do computing because they see it as studying computing for itself. We want to show how it connects to every other interest they might have.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that computer science jobs will grow by 19% by 2026, but only 18% of women earn bachelor’s degrees in that field.
According to Plane, participating in the MCWIC’s camps allows young girls to broaden their view of what they can do with STEM and allow those who were not thinking of taking on a STEM major, or who were not sure if they had the ability to do one, become much more confident in it.
“There has been quite a few of them that weren’t thinking of STEM as a major, and yet they have decided to try the camp, and by the end of the three years they are much more confident that they can do something in the STEM field,” Plane said.
After going through the MCWIC’s summer programs, graduating high schoolers have an opportunity to volunteer at the camps like Alexis and Mikaila and apply to become teaching assistants as high school students and ambassadors during their time at UMD.
“You have those people who already go in having computer coding experience, and we have some people who have never seen it before, so it’s good to help them because you know exactly how they’re feeling,” Mikaila said.
Utsa Santhosh also went through the CompSciConnect camp. She started in sixth grade, and after completing the three-year program, she came back every year throughout high school to be a teaching assistant.
“I think the program really opened my eyes to computing,” she said. “It was never on my radar before CompSciConnect or being part of the camp.
“It introduced me to computing, and because of that, I took a couple of classes in high school that furthered my interest and my knowledge in the subject.”
Now a sophomore at UMD majoring in computer science, Santhosh works as an ambassador for the program still working with students in the camps where she hopes to have the same impact on the kids as her ambassadors had on her.
“I really hope they get an interest in computer science. Not only that, but I hope that they understand how computers are applied to your everyday life,” Plane said. “Every profession that you go into, it’s really something you should know.”
Computer science has a bad reputation of being for a certain population, Plane said. The perception is that you are either good at it or not and if you are not, then you can’t pursue it as a career.
The biggest hope that Plane has for the MCWIC’s summer programs is that they will serve to broaden young girl’s perspective on the STEM field and make them see that anyone can learn these skills and excel.
“When they see themselves and other students who weren’t necessarily in the computer science group able to learn this material, they really learn that there is a growth mindset that if they learn about it and try it, they can do it too,” Plane said. “It’s not something that these people are naturally computer scientists. Anybody can learn this material.”