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Google Funding Helps Gators Mentor Greater Houston Students

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Many of Texas’ K-12 schools don’t offer computer science classes. And, the misconception about computer science (CS) being a complicated subject is common among young students.

With the help of Google’s igniteCS, a group of University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) students are taking action to change this mentality, particularly among females.

In spring 2017, the Department of Computer Science & Engineering Technology (CSET) was awarded funding from Google’s igniteCS to expand its computer science education outreach among female K-12 students. Google ingniteCS is an initiative that provides funding and resources for college students to effect their communities through computer science mentorship.

The Google igniteCS grant supports outreach efforts from UHD’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery Council on Women (ACM-W)—focused on increasing the retention of women in computer science, by offering networking opportunities, access to resources, and increased knowledge in design and development for the benefit of young females.

Recent initiatives from the University’s ACM-W chapter, included CS workshops at Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy (YWCPA) May 29 – June 3 and Lake Olympia Middle School June 12 – 16.

“Through this grant we are able to make an impact and break down the mental barrier that computer science is hard,” said UHD computer science senior Amee Stevenson. “These young girls are at a pivotal stage in their lives. Encouraging and serving as an example to them can instill confidence in pursuing a major and career in computer science.”

In addition to Stevenson, the workshops were led by the University’s ACM-W mentors and computer science majors:  Eva Ruiz, sophomore; Vanessa Cabrera, junior; Iliana Barrera, junior; Mona Alamos, senior; Alexandra Sisavath, senior; Jesus Reveles, senior; Akash Sharma, senior; Emmanuel Ogunkoya, junior; Ameen Khan, sophomore; and alumna Carrie Dumit (’17).

Excited to promote enthusiasm for computer science, the UHD mentors believe that students who are exposed to computer science will have a much higher tendency to continue through the field. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, female employees fill fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs — even though they make up nearly half of the overall workforce. In the startup world, just 5 percent of women head their own companies. And, these discouraging numbers haven’t changed much in the last decade.

“Anything can be accomplished if you have the right guidance and good teachers,” Stevenson said. “Yes, women are out-numbered in technology industries 4-to-1, but we have much to contribute. The idea of changing this number starts with them, right now. We also hope to be relatable role models and serve as inspiration. We hope that one day they can see themselves where we are today.”

The mentors also hope to make computer science more attractive and less intimidating by familiarizing students to the subject not only through code, but also through a hands-on, interactive approach.

Throughout the five-day workshops at YWCPA, students were introduced to the entire life cycle of a computer system’s process, including installing operating system software, coding and creating successful executable programs. At the conclusion of the workshop, students toured Schlumberger-WesternGeco Data Center—Schlumberger’s largest data center.

Throughout the five-day workshop at Lake Olympia Middle School in the Fort Bend Independent School District, students were introduced to C++, a general-purpose programming language.

“We hope that by making learning C++ a fun experience, we contribute to lowering the statistic of computer science being underrepresented,” said Ruiz. “We also wish to plant a seed in which students will begin to develop an understanding and interest in computer science, paving the road towards pursuing a career in this discipline.”

Stevenson and Ruiz, also members of UHD’s Scholars Academy, submitted the application for funding on behalf of CSET. Generally, Google only awards funding to one applicant per university, however, both were strong submissions, so the company supported both UHD students.

ACM-W at UHD was initiated by its former president Stephanie Reyes (’17) in 2015.  The chapter is advised by Dr. Dvijesh Shastri, assistant professor of computer science.