High school junior organizes computer camp for girls

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published April 10, 2015

 Young female students listen to Jennifer Marsman, of Microsoft Corp., talk about her job April 7.

Young female students listen to Jennifer Marsman, of Microsoft Corp., talk about her job April 7.

Christina Li, 17, of Macomb Township, decided to organize a computer camp for girls after she noticed a pronounced lack of females at a programming marathon last summer at Stanford University in California.

Twenty-nine girls in grades six through eight in Utica Community Schools chose to spend their spring break learning how to program and code; create websites, apps and robots; and listen to women in the industry share their stories April 6-10.

Li is the head programmer for the UCS high school robotics team, the ThunderChickens. She became interested in programming and computer science at a young age by creating websites with her two brothers — the three are triplets.

She is currently a junior at Stevenson High School and also attends the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.

“Out of 100 people (at the programming marathon at Stanford University), two or three were girls, and that’s when it really hit me,” Li said. “I knew there was a problem before, but I didn’t really see it. I came back wanting to do something about it.”

She said she drew inspiration from classes at Stanford for the local girls’ computer camp, and she wanted to help fill a gap in technology-based classes offered in the district.

Li said she actually began planning the girls computer camp in December. Because of connections that she made at a computer science camp for women at Michigan Technological University two summers ago, she did not have to look far to find speakers to share their experiences.

“One of the speakers they had was a Google engineer, (Danielle VanDyke), and she was so enthusiastic about what she does,” Li said. “I connected with her last summer and got to go on a tour of Google (in California), and I recently got back in touch with her.”

Li said VanDyke was excited about the opportunity to share her expertise with young female students. Li said VanDyke also provided an internal link for Google scholarships and grants, which helped support the camp, and a field trip the last day to Ann Arbor to tour Google offices and University of Michigan engineering labs.

Li won a website building contest through the Michigan Council of Women in Technology and spoke at a breakfast before local technology executives in Detroit, and she said her networking at the event also helped her facilitate the camp.

“It’s so nice to see (the girls) so enthusiastic and into programming,” Li said. “The number of girls I have is definitely really cool.”

She said there is at least one girl from each middle school in the district, and the UCS communications liaison reached out to middle school principals and counselors to promote the program and featured her on the district’s homepage.

In the morning, the girls focused on different types of computer science, and in the afternoon, they worked on developing their own website, Li said.

“They worked on two projects per day,” Li said. “There is a wide range of things you can do in computer science programs. You can solve any problem you want. If you want something to happen, you can find out a bunch of ways to work around it.”

On Monday, the girls learned game design; on Tuesday, they worked on creating an app; on Wednesday, they focused on robotics; on Thursday, they could work on their choice and showed off their progress to their families during an expo; and on Friday, they were scheduled to take the field trip to Ann Arbor.

Cheryl Cunningham, program mentor and building administrator of the Joan C. Sergent Instructional Resource Center in Sterling Heights, where the girls’ computer camp took place, said when she initially heard that a 17-year-old was putting together a program of that caliber, she was awestruck.

“She has speakers, everybody from Google to Microsoft to different professional organizations,” Cunningham said. “Watching her deal with the girls and the inspiration she’s putting into these youngsters (is amazing). She’s planting seeds already.”

She said they never have to worry about the girls arriving on time because they are always early and eat their lunches quickly in order to get back in and do things on the computer.

“The parents are beyond impressed with what their daughters are talking about,” she said. “Christina is a little go-getter. She really is. She sees what she wants and makes it happen.”

Cunningham said the overall camp’s message is about empowering girls to achieve their dreams and reach for the stars.

“It’s just a great thing to get the gears turning,” she said. “Christina is the only one doing this. She is the one making the contacts. She is the one organizing every day, and at the end of the day, she gives them a sheet with references for what they learned. I’m just doing the background logistics.”