Girls Who Code Award Honors a Powerful Purpose: 'This is How We Get Kids into Computing'

4/25/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Student co-leads from the local Girls Who Code chapter, Ananya Yammanuru and Trisha Murali, explain the importance behind earning The Strive Together Award from the Women’s Resources Center last month.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Last month the local chapter of Girls Who Code (GWC) learned that it won The Strive Together Award from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Women’s Resources Center. The award honors a Student Led Club that makes “significant contributions towards gender equity during the current academic year.”

This year's local Girls Who Code chapter includes more than 20 facilitators and student leaders to help about 40 young students find their own inspiration in computing.
This year's local Girls Who Code chapter includes more than 20 facilitators and student leaders to help about 40 young students find their own inspiration in computing.

Thrilled that their GWC group earned this award, two student co-leads of the club – Ananya Yammanuru, current Illinois Computer Science Ph.D. student who also earned a bachelor’s in CS here at Illinois, and Trisha Murali, undergraduate sophomore in Electrical and Computer Engineering – explained how its meaning connects so well to their own purpose.

As a club, Girls Who Code hosts outreach events and invites K-12 girls to learn computing-related concepts at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science every Sunday. More than 20 facilitators join the co-leads to spark interest in computing for a current enrollment of about 40 young students.

Yammanuru began working with GWC her freshman year as an undergraduate student. During that year, she witnessed and played a part in the kind of meaningful connection GWC can create.

She recalls a time in 2019 when she was working on an Arduino piano workshop. Arduino is an open-source platform, and its microcontroller allowed the group to learn breadboarding and the basics of electronics.

The students, Yammanuru said, became interested in the capabilities learned during lessons – turning on lights, placing buttons in certain places, making sure the button works, and then making the speaker play a sound and differentiating between notes. As she watched the reactions, she said the students responded like people interested in a “cool demo” at a science fair.

But that changed on the last day with everything assembled, the project finalized, and its full capabilities came to life.

Ananya Yammanuru
Ananya Yammanuru

“It was like the switch flipped and all the lights turned on – pun totally intended. You could see it ‘click’ in each of the students’ faces, when they realized what all the previous weeks’ lessons led up to. And very suddenly the energy in the room went from normal to turbo-charged,” Yammanuru said. “At the end of the session we had one of the kids run out and drag her dad into the room by the sleeve, very enthusiastically talking about the piano that she and her friend made. He asked her questions like: ‘Why did the wires go here?’ ‘How does it do that?’ ‘What does this line of code do?” And she answered every single one of them and more.

“That was when it clicked for me, that this is how we get kids into computing.”

For both Yammanuru and Murali, that moment is especially important for girls – and it’s partly why GWC is so important to them.

Both recall moments in which they were one of very few girls in their college courses. When that occurs, Murali said, it’s important that students feel supported in some way.

She believes that Girls Who Code can offer that exact support to young students.

Trisha Murali
Trisha Murali

“Girls Who Code is a space where everyone is rooting for each other. We inspire each other, and we always welcome anyone who wants to join,” Murali said. “We have women in tech speakers every week. These are women who are currently pursuing their education and some who are already in the workforce. They come in to share their stories, and we see the students interact with them and ask them questions. It’s important that the students see someone like them in a domain they may want to pursue.”

As a national organization, GWC supplies its local chapters with activity plans, curriculum options, and resources so clubs can start anywhere.

But here at Illinois, Yammanuru said that localizing those plans improves upon them. She said they have “Illinois-ized GWC.”

“Illinois CS is a huge department, with hundreds of extremely passionate people,” Yammanuru said. “Why should we show a video interview of someone talking about combining their passion with computer science, when we can bring in someone from the department who is passionate about computer science? When we bring people in for our Woman in Tech spotlights, they’re real, and they’re here. The kids can ask them questions and have the chance to interact with them.”

This personal and impassioned approach helped GWC earn The Strive Together Award, where the UIUC Women's Center celebrated them along with other award winners on March 1.

The surprising element was that the co-leaders didn’t even know of the nomination for GWC until they won an award – another student had taken that action anonymously.

“It was very meaningful to us that another student felt as deeply for our work and was able to see the impact of GWC,” Murali said. “We had a great time attending the Strive Awards event and were so excited to learn about the work that the Women's Resource Center. Gender equity is the heart of what our goal is with GWC, and it’s an honor to be recognized for it and share it with all these incredible people.”

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This story was published April 25, 2023.