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Aja Capel Becomes Illinois CS NCWIT Aspirations Chapter’s First National Winner

5/15/2019 2:54:26 PM By David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

In 2018, Aja Capel became the first member of the Central Illinois chapter of NCWIT Aspirations to be recognized with a national honorable mention by the organization.

Aja Capel, center, with her father, Parrish Capel, and her mother, Dr. Shawn Love.
Aja Capel, center, with her father, Parrish Capel, and her mother, Dr. Shawn Love.
This spring the 15-year-old from Urbana topped that, becoming the Illinois Computer Science-based chapter’s first national NCWIT Aspirations in Computing winner. She was chosen from among a record 4,300 applicants from across the country.

The national award, she said, celebrated what has been an almost lifelong pursuit of computing and robotics. It also recognized her for, among a long list of other accomplishments, starting her own organization to promote STEM learning and careers among under-represented young people, See Me in STEM.

The Central Illinois chapter also had its second national runner up this year, 15-year-old Sophia Torrellas, a freshman at University Laboratory High School.

For Aja, the award meant a chance to spend time with the other national winners around NCWIT’s ceremony in March in Charlotte, N.C., where, amid tech-related tours and parties, Aja found another reward.

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

National Honorable Mention:

Aja Capal

Central Illinois Chapter Winners:

Emi Brown, Aja Capal, Anisha Gubba, Hanna Sigler, Elizabeth Singer

Central Illinois Educator Award Winner:

April Schermann

Central Illinois Chapter Honorable Mentions:

Audrey Goodlick, Andrea Irving, Riley Johnson, Alyxandra Merritt, Katrina Phillips, Kathryn Rohlfing, Alyssa Watson, Gianna Vitale

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“Mostly, I got to know other girls like myself who are excited about engineering, computing and technology, who spoke the same language I do and who had similar interests and aspirations,” she said. “I also met a lot of wonderful women at NCWIT who will there to support me in the next phase of my journey as I apply (to) and attend college.”

The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing honors high school girls for computing-related achievements and interests. Winners are selected for their computing and information-technology aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education.

You might say Aja has been pursuing an education and career in tech since she was 4, when her parents enrolled her in a robotics course at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign.

Since then she’s taken on one challenge after another, usually at a relentless pace that keeps her mother, Dr. Shawn Love, and father, Parrish Capel, running.

“Aja has something deep inside that drives her. She has always been a bundle of energy with so much curiosity and desire to do and learn -- there have never been enough hours in the day for all the things she would like to do,” said Shawn Love, an orthopedic surgeon and CEO of The Carpal Tunnel Center in Champaign. Aja’s father manages the practice.

Aja says she learns differently than most students. She has dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, CAPD, and visual disturbances.

So she has carved out her own, accelerated academic path. She’s currently a junior at Urbana High School, but only attends part time. She instead takes core classes online through a program at Arizona State University.

She’s also taking college classes at Arizona State, starting with a U.S. History class last fall, a Chemistry class this spring and Physics and English classes planned for fall 2019.

“My college professors have been wonderful to work with. They did not know I was a high school student when I took their class. I did the same work as every other college student,” she said.

After graduation from high school, she hopes to attend Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and major in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics.
Some of the NCWIT Aspirations Central Illinois Chapter winners pose with Illinois CS Department Head Nancy Amato, second from right.
Some of the NCWIT Aspirations Central Illinois Chapter winners pose with Illinois CS Department Head Nancy Amato, second from right.

Then, after college, she hopes to go to veterinary school, eventually combining engineering with a veterinary medicine degree to make animal prosthetics and starting her own technology company.

Outside of the classroom, Aja’s plans are ambitious.

She is working to incorporate See Me in STEM as a nonprofit; teaching a class she created in programming with Spheros – programmable robotic balls -- to African-American girls at a neighborhood center in Urbana; working as a STEM consultant to DREAAM House, a pre-kindergarten-to-college pipeline program in Champaign; interning with the State 4-H Office.

And she’s learning to fly.

“I fly drones … At a drone event my mom and I came across a flyer advertising flying lessons for students,” she said. “I took an introductory lesson where I took the throttle and took off, I made right and left turns, I climbed and dipped, and then we landed. The fact that it was hands-on and it felt comfortable and natural was thrilling. I was hooked.”

Since winning the Aspirations in Computing national award, Aja has gone on to be named one of The Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Leaders and Innovators in STEAM and Space, named a FIRST Dean’s List National Award winner for robotics, named a Prudential Spirit of Community National Award winner, becoming one of the top 10 youth volunteers in the United States, and was honored in May, in Washington DC with a gold medal and scholarship.