The two young programmers take turns peering into the 3-D virtual reality headset, blasting space rocks that seem to be hurtling toward them. The players can shoot the oncoming asteroids, or dodge them and then turn and watch them fly into the distance.
But don’t admire the scenery too long. In this unforgiving simulation, you don’t get three lives to burn through, à la Pac-Man. If one errant space rock slips past your defenses, you’re dead.
The space shoot-’em-up is just the kind of game you’d expect to see produced by young teens learning the ropes of programming, but the ones who produced this game aren’t your stereotypical high school computer nerds.
Both are girls, sticking exploratory toes into a field where they are badly outnumbered.
They’re participants in Computer Science Connect, a two-week day camp for girls put on earlier this month by faculty and students in the Department of Computer Science. It focuses on a range of skills, including Web page-building, cybersecurity and programming in popular languages, with the aim of evening out a dramatic gender imbalance in the field.
The camp, in its fourth year, is supported by the Bethesda, Md., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, as well as a donation from Brendan Iribe, a former UMD student and CEO of Oculus VR—maker of the headsets the girls are using—that allowed the camp to grow this year. Together, the July session and an already-full August session will host about 85 girls.
The space rock game designers, Suveena Sreenilayam, 12, and Courtney Tse, 15, cautiously admit they’re happy no boys are present. They and the other girls say they feel confident in their potential here, and quashing that feeling with boys around can make technical projects challenging.
“It seems like they’re not worried if they mess things up and make mistakes,” says Tse, a student at Centennial High School in Ellicott City says of the campers. “I think if there were boys here, it would be harder, because it wouldn’t be as open.”
In the well-educated areas where both live, boys are pushed into fields like engineering and computer science, says Sreenilayam, who attends Takoma Park Middle School. But that’s rarely the case for girls.
“Guys seem to have a leg up already,” says Sreenilayam.
The most recent U.S. Department of Education numbers show she’s right. Men outnumbered women earning undergraduate computer science degrees by more than 4 to 1, there was a nearly 3-to-1 imbalance in master’s degrees, and only 353 women received a Ph.D. in the field in 2013, compared to 1,473 men.
The high water mark for women was 30 years ago, when 15,129 women received undergraduate computer science degrees, compared to 27,208 men. Since then, the number of graduates has fallen both proportionally and in real numbers, to just 9,088 undergrads in 2013.
That’s bad for not just female students, but also the computer science field and the United States, because there aren’t enough graduates to fill jobs and not enough workforce diversity to create the best products possible, says Jandelyn Plane—Dr. Jan, as the campers call her. Plane, a computer science senior lecturer and director of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, founded the camp and runs it each year.
“We’re reaching out to populations that are underrepresented, which means women and certain minorities,” she says. “As the total numbers in computing fields went up, the percentages of women have gone down. For racial minorities, it isn’t any better. These are things we need to turn around.”
She’s making a difference one girl at a time, showing them that they can gain a foothold in cryptology, number theory and logic. Then, like camp graduate and now teaching assistant Camryn Stanley, 15, they can help other girls build confidence that computer science-related fields are open to girls as well as boys.
“When I started, I wouldn’t say it was difficult—it was more overwhelming,” says the sophomore at Reservoir High School in Howard County. “But I was excited to go, and I worked hard. And now I’m giving back and helping others get through the same thing I did.”
Stanley, who has always favored math and science over art or creative writing, knows there’s a place for her someday in an exciting, high-tech field.
“People seem to think girls only want to go into creative fields and boys want to do the science and math fields,” she said. “But really, we can do everything a boy does—even better.”
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