White House honors local teen as a ‘champion of change’

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published February 3, 2016

 Christina Li, one of nine individuals recognized by the White House for being a computer science education “champion of change,” stands by the presidential seal in Washington, D.C., Jan. 26. (Photo provided by Christina Li)

Christina Li, one of nine individuals recognized by the White House for being a computer science education “champion of change,” stands by the presidential seal in Washington, D.C., Jan. 26. (Photo provided by Christina Li)

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Known around the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology for her leadership, innovation and compassion, teachers said they were not surprised when the White House recognized Christina Li, 17, of Macomb Township, as a computer science education “champion of change” Jan. 26.

Li single-handedly planned and executed a weeklong computer science camp, called “Hello World,” for 30 middle school girls in the district during spring break last year. She plans to hold the camp again this midwinter break and has received about 36 applications.

The girls learned how to code robots, apps, websites and games; heard from women in the industry; and toured Google offices and the University of Michigan engineering labs in Ann Arbor. This year, the girls will hear from new speakers and travel to the Microsoft Technology Center in Southfield.

Li said she organized the day camp for girls after she noticed a lack of females at a 2014 summer programming marathon at Stanford University in California.

A senior at Stevenson High School, Li is also the head programmer for the UCS high school robotics team, the ThunderChickens.

She said she became interested in programming and computer science at a young age by creating websites with her two brothers — the three are triplets.

After finding out she had been nominated and selected as one of nine computer science “champions of change” nationwide, Li and her brothers made the drive to Washington, D.C.

The White House selected the nine recipients for their leadership and innovation in expanding access to computer science education to better their communities, as well as strengthen the nation’s global economy and cybersecurity. Li is one of two high school students among the nine honorees.

Although the government shut down Jan. 25-26 due to blizzard conditions and the public live stream was down, Li said the event to honor the nine “champions of change” was still a go.

“I felt very honored, of course, and when we talked to the other champions, I was really happy to see that a lot of people are in the same mindset as I am, wanting to do more to help more kids learn computer science,” Li said.

She met Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education John King, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Megan Smith, actress and director Gillian Jacobs and co-founder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Meredith Walker.

“(President Barack) Obama was working in the Oval Office, which was down the hall,” Li said. “On Wednesday, we got a White House tour. Usually you have to wait much more than we did for access, so that was really cool.”

Li credited Jennifer Carl, who taught Li’s freshman introductory computer science class at the Utica Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology, with instilling her passion for computer science.

“I’m super proud of her because she saw an area where she felt she could do something to make a difference, and she went for it,” Carl said. “She just stepped out of the box and did it, and I’m just incredibly proud.”

When Li was in Carl’s class, Carl said, she advanced quickly and worked well in a team setting. Carl said she was glad that Li followed her advice to take advantage of extracurricular opportunities, such as summer programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Michigan Technological University.

“She is driven and passionate and, if she wants to try something out, she doesn’t have any fear to do something that someone hasn’t done before,” Carl said.

David Ersig, a math teacher at UCMST who has taught Li the past two years, said Li consistently is one of the center’s top performers.

“She’s innovative, she’s determined, she’s incredibly intelligent and, above all, she’s incredibly caring,” he said. “She’s able to network with so many different people. She drives class achievement higher amongst her peers and is very team-oriented and collaborative with others.”

Li said she has been accepted to Stanford University and the University of Michigan so far and has yet to hear back from other colleges. She said she plans to pursue a career in some sort of engineering.

For more information about the “champions of change” program, visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions.

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