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Urbana High Student’s Drive, Determination Earn NCWIT Chapter’s First-Ever National Recognition

4/20/2018 10:19:22 AM David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Urbana High School student Aja Capel with her father, Parrish Capel.
Urbana High School student Aja Capel with her father, Parrish Capel.
Aja Capel insists her parents steered her toward robotics when she was 4 years old to, primarily, save their home and possessions.

“I used to take everything apart around my house,” said the Urbana High School sophomore and member of the Illinois Computer Science chapter of Girls Who Code. “My mom and dad enrolled me in a robotics course at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum so I would take other people’s stuff apart. It worked. I spent all my time building robots until that just wasn’t complex enough.”

So robotics led to computer science.

Now Aja, who at 14 is already a high school sophomore, was named as a Regional Winner in the Central Illinois Chapter of NCWIT Aspirations, to be recognized by the National Center for Women & Information Technology during its annual Aspirations in Computing awards.

NCWIT Aspirations in Computing awards winners at the awards ceremony on April 7 at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.
NCWIT Aspirations in Computing awards winners at the awards ceremony on April 7 at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.
About a dozen girls and their parents and other relatives attended the ceremony, enjoyed breakfast, and listened to talks by CS Assistant Professor Ranjitha Kumar and NCWIT Aspirations Chapter student leader Monika Janas.

Aja received a national honorable mention (the first ever for the Central Illinois Chapter run by Computer Science at Illinois), and won one of the chapter awards presented at the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing ceremony on April 7 at the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science.

Aja applied for the award at the urging of one of her college-student mentors, she said. The two have been awarded an NCWIT grant they plan to use to run two programming summer camps for elementary school girls of color.

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

Apply Each Fall at http://aspirations.org

Urbana High School student and NCWIT Aspirations award winner Aja Capel, left, with NCWIT Extension Services Associate Director Jamie Huber Ward.
Urbana High School student and NCWIT Aspirations award winner Aja Capel, left, with NCWIT Extension Services Associate Director Jamie Huber Ward.

Despite her relatively long experience with coding and robotics, Aja’s involvement in Girls Who Code is new, starting just in the past year.

It’s part of the long path that started with taking things apart at home and that she hopes will lead her to the University of Illinois to study mechanical engineering and, ultimately, veterinary school.

She says she loves animals and hopes to combine robotics engineering with animal science.

Computer science, she says, gave her a valuable engineering tool, back when she was just starting down that path and found she wanted her robots to do more.

“I wanted to add motors and sensors which meant I had to learn computer programming to get the robots to do what I wanted them to do,” she said. “I find computer science interesting because it opens up a whole new world of what I can make all the parts and pieces of my robots come to life and do.”

She also stresses that she is “a different thinker.”

That’s because she has dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, CAPD, and visual disturbances.

“I process information differently than most people,” Aja said. “My different is a tremendous gift but it has made school extremely difficult. Robotics has become my refuge. When I am creating robots and teaching kids I feel invincible.”

Practically speaking, she also keeps those around her busy.

Her mother, Dr. Shawn Love, is an orthopedic surgeon and CEO of The Carpal Tunnel Center in Champaign, a practice her father, Parrish Capel, manages.

Aja’s interest in starting summer camps is an example of her degree of dedication and need to be constantly involved in something.

“She has extreme difficulty with free time, wanting to fill every minute of every day with projects, activities, lessons and classes of one kind or another,” Love said. “She has to be constantly mentally or physically engaged—thinking, creating, doing. She just sees the end zone and starts running, refusing to be limited.”