Empowering Girls to Say ‘Hello, World!’

This seventeen-year-old started a computer science club just for middle school girls

“The passion amazed me,” Li said of the thirty young women who participated in her computer science camp during spring break.

By My Nguyen

Christina Li’s spring break did not involve swimming pools, sun tan lotion, or flip-flops. Instead, it included game design, app development, and robotics.

A rising senior at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Christina spent her spring break introducing computer science to young girls.

Christina became motivated to organize a camp specifically for girls after attending a hackathon at Stanford University the previous summer. The lack of female participants was glaring.

Moreover, she had experienced the gender gap firsthand, as the only girl in the programming department on her robotics team, the only girl in her engineering class, and the only girl in her research lab.

Hoping to empower young girls and encourage them to pursue technology as a career or area of study, Christina founded Hello World (named for the first line programmers often type in a new programming language), a five-day camp for middle school girls.

During the camp, girls learned web development, hardware programming, app creation, game design, and robotics — all within an environment in which they were, finally, in the majority.

The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Christina about Hello World, and why she believes female-only environments are helpful when introducing girls to coding.

How did you become interested in programming and computer science?

In third grade, I programmed a basic website from HTML with my brothers. It was just images, Comic Sans, and neon backgrounds, but it really showed me the power of computer science, and how I could manipulate things with just a few strokes of the keyboard.

My love for CS really developed with FIRST Robotics with Team #217, the ThunderChickens. Making our giant 6-ft tall, 120-lb robot move and dance with a couple (thousand) lines of code really emphasized the power of programming.

What is the first project you created with Scratch?

The first project I coded for Scratch was actually for an online Harvard MOOC course on edX, CS50. By that time, I had already learned C++ and Java, so it was actually a little bit of a struggle figuring out how things worked with the drag-and-drop blocks. I made the same Flappy Bird game that I taught the girls in my camp how to create — with plenty of trial and error and mistakes. I had to divide the project into different aspects: creating the bird, moving the background, keeping score, hitting obstacles, etc.

How did you learn about Scratch?

I’d heard of Scratch a while ago, but I never really played around with it until last year. After changing my mindset a little from “traditional” programming, it was extremely easy to use, and in my mind, perfect for beginners.

Tell us about Hello World.

Hello World is a computer science day camp for middle school girls, which takes place during spring break. In the first camp, I taught a variety of topics to showcase how cool computer science can be. We covered game design with Scratch, app development with MIT AppInventor, robotics with Finches, and web design with HTML/CSS.

Along with daily “lessons,” I hosted online conferences and in-person panels with female engineers from the industry. They discussed their experiences and their jobs. On the last day, we visited Google Ann Arbor to explore their workplace and amazing, quirky tech culture, as well as the University of Michigan’s North Engineering campus, to observe all of the tech projects they’re developing.

Li’s computer science camp visits the Google campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What motivated you to start a coding camp for girls?

Unfortunately, I’m used to being the only girl in tech-related extracurriculars and activities. For example, I’m the only girl in the programming department on my robotics team — and one of the first female programmer leads in a decade — the only girl in my engineering class, and the only girl in my research lab. During hackathons, and even in everyday practice for robotics, I’ve faced bias, even if it’s just small things.

One of the reasons I’ve stayed in this field is because of my amazing support network — the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) Aspiration in Computing award winners. They inspired me to create Hello World to attract more girls to these fields while they’re still young.

What kind of skills will participants learn in your coding camp?

I think that a skill that the girls learned was how to think analytically like programmers and engineers, and how to tackle problems together. I had them work with partners so they could help each other whenever they had problems. During the week, I hosted several team-bonding activities so that the girls would become comfortable with each other — which was important for their success together.

During the five-day camp, girls programmed their own robots.

Why do you feel that it’s important that young girls have an opportunity to learn about these topics in female-only environments?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to learn when you’re an obvious minority in something. You may push yourself too hard to do well because you feel like you’re representing that minority, even though you’re just an individual.

When it comes to computer science, many boys already have prior interest because of video games programming and whatnot. With Hello World, some of the girls did not have prior interest in computer science, so it served more of an opportunity for introduction, rather than an in-depth course.

What do you think other CS programs or coding camps can do to be more inviting to female participants?

I do think the tech world is slowly changing to become more inclusive, especially with all the attention placed on women in computer science recently.

One of the more male-dominated CS activities are hackathons — or programming marathons — where many students go without sleep or showers to complete a project. For many programmers, unhealthy junk food is usually the diet for the two-three day period of the hackathon. I believe this unhealthiness turns many girls away. Some companies and organizations that host hackathons are beginning to offer free showers and healthy snacks instead of the common energy drinks and chips.

Do you have a favorite memory or anecdote you can share from the Hello World program?

On the fourth day, everyone was trying to complete their projects for the showcase. One student who really liked robotics was trying to have her robot go through a maze. Each time she tested it, the robot would go slightly off-target in the beginning, and error would build up near the end, making it entirely inaccurate. This happens with my own robotics team’s robot as well, in what we call autonomous mode, where the drivers cannot give input to the robot.

The student was getting understandably frustrated at how nothing seemed to be working, and she even wanted to skip lunch to get it done. Her determination to finish the task was really inspiring, and reminded me of my own troubles on the team. With a few sensors, we worked together to get it done right, and her satisfied smile at the end made it all worth it.

Thirty students registered for Li’s inaugural computer science camp. She plans to offer the camp again next spring.

What are your future plans for Hello World?

I plan to continue Hello World, at least through my senior year of high school. I’ve already contacted a few groups who are more than willing to help out, including the University of Michigan’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group and the National Center for Women in Information Technology. Because of its prior success, and all the buzz about this program, I think it should be easier to attract participants.