ChicTech Created an Encouraging Computing Environment for High School Students

12/9/2021 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Co-directors Angie Cheng and Meghna Gopalan explain how the daylong event held by Women in Computer Science sought to inspire greater participation in computing at a young age.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As co-directors of this year’s ChicTech – a full day event hosted by Women in Computer Science (WCS) that’s designed to introduce high school students to computing – undergraduate students Angie Cheng and Meghna Gopalan found momentum for the event and familiarity between each other behind a shared inspiration.

High School students who attended 2021 ChicTech event at Illinois CS, pose in front of a projector's screen showing others who attended the event digitally.
Nearly 30 high school students attended 2021 ChicTech in-person at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science, while another roughly 40 students attended virtually.

Cheng is a senior undergraduate student in the Mathematics and Computer Science program who came here from the Bay Area in California. Gopalan is a sophomore in CS + Advertising from in-state Naperville.

Both love to see engagement in computing and STEM from younger students, work to make that spark occur for others, and enjoy offsetting a few stereotypes along the way.

“From a young age on, I have enjoyed puzzles and problem solving,” Cheng said. “Friends teased me about it and told me that’s why I’m a math and computer science person. But even growing up around Silicon Valley, my high school only had two CS classes. My graduating class had about 400 students, and each CS course had a max capacity of 30 students.

“Accessibility of CS education is an issue at all levels of school no matter where you’re from. That makes me want to give back to younger students and help them understand it.”

What does that moment feel like, though? That moment when a younger student engages in something new. Gopalan has experienced it before, through music, and wants to do the same through computing.

Professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider speaks at 2021 ChicTech event, at the front of a classroom with a microphone and wearing a green sweater.
Illinois CS professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider worked with data for the keynote speech and interactive workshop.

“I’ve tutored computer science students before when I was in high school, but before that I actually started out tutoring music students on the flute,” Gopalan said. “Being able to see students gain something from me makes me feel good. It’s so clear when a student finds a lesson worth it and takes it to heart. That’s why I wanted to involve myself in ChicTech.”

This year, the co-directors worked side-by-side with a committee of six students and about 18 student volunteers to pull of the hybrid event. Both Cheng and Gopalan said that the helpful nature of each person working the event is what made it possible.

Held in the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science, 27 in-person participants combined with 40 students who participated virtually.

ChicTech found creative ways to capture the imagination of every attendee through computing.

First off, breakfast and icebreakers took place over a quick game of Pictionary. Then the students sat in with student volunteers and event leaders to learn how to make their own website and data visualizations using GitHub Pages, HTML/CSS.

This preceded more detailed information about data visualizations, which came through a workshop and keynote speech both led by Illinois CS professor Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider.

Additionally, Illinois CS graduate student Rittika Adhikari worked very closely with the professor during the workshop.

“It was amazing to see them both work with the students the way they did,” Gopalan said. “Professor Fagen-Ulmschneider not only told them about data concepts but also introduced the students to working with it on their own. They even began creating some of their own shapes and visualizations with the data."

Graduate student Rittika Adhikari speaks at the 2021 ChicTech event, in front of a classroom with a microphone and is wearing a gray sweater.
Graduate student Rittika Adhikari also worked with the students, as they came to better understand data visualizations.

The positive response to working with data didn’t surprise Cheng, who has learned first-hand how motivating this experience can be.

“Professor Fagen-Ulmschneider is one of the professors I have most enjoyed working with as an undergraduate student. He’s always willing to invest his time and resources to help me grow as a person and programmer,” Cheng said. “He was also more than willing to help us with ChicTech, and his work is perfect for it. It’s easy to engage students new to CS when they can see the results of working with data so quickly.”

Considering that Cheng and Gopalan believe that it can be tricky to enter computing for a couple of reasons, the co-directors also ensured that ChicTech sought to offset some of these issues.

First and foremost, both joined WCS because they know there is work to do in making technology fields more diverse.

As Cheng said, “the impostor syndrome is real for so many in CS.”

“That is true, but it’s all about confidence,” Gopalan said. “I’ve realized, over my own time here, that I can learn the skills needed to be successful in CS. I’ve become much more confident because I’ve accepted that to be true. Then I don’t feel the need to fit a certain stereotype; I can be me.”

Also, both believe that a misconception exists that computing remains closed off and doesn’t impact other areas of everyday life.

“My mom was a huge influence in my life. Being a woman in STEM herself, she taught me that you have to stand up for yourself,” Cheng said. “I believe there is a misconception that computing equates to being a software engineer, and you’re plugging away on a computer for hours in a dark, dingy room.

“Computer science is so much more. We’re here as students to learn skills like programming, and it’s then up to us to use those skills in many ways. That’s what is exciting about computing, and that’s what I wanted to pass along to these young students.”

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This story was published December 9, 2021.