First Bytes entices tech-minded girls

Syeda Hasan

A UT summer camp in its ninth year has a track record for bringing women into computer sciences.

The Department of Computer Sciences kicked off First Bytes Summer Camp on Sunday. The free program will bring together 60 Texas high school girls this week and expose them to the field of computer science through activities such as dissecting computers, attending presentations by professional computer scientists and visiting St. David’s Hospital to see the da Vinci surgical robot.

Tiffany Grady, assistant director in the Department of Computer Sciences, said there have historically been far fewer women than men in computer science programs across the country, but this year the University has 15 percent more women entering the department compared to previous years.

“I think exposing the girls to the field early has a very strong impact,” Grady said. “This year we have 12 girls who attended a prior camp and now are going to be enrolled in the fall.”

Camp Director Mary Esther Middleton said the camp aims to encourage female students to be open-minded about the careers they wish to pursue.

“I think sometimes they think it’s just a male-dominated field,” Middleton said. “Some girls don’t get the encouragement they need, and meeting all these other girls that have the same interest gets them very excited about doing technical things and solving problems.”

Taylor Barnett, an incoming computer science freshman and First Bytes program assistant, said attending the camp in high school inspired her to pursue a computer sciences degree.

“It was like a breath of fresh air being around girls who also enjoy science and math,” Barnett said. “It made me even more interested to see all the different things you could do with a computer science degree that I really wasn’t exposed to in high school.”

Computer sciences junior Cassie Schwendiman attended the camp in high school and said it is important to expose students to diverse career opportunities at an early age so they can avoid later confusion about which field is the best choice for them.

“The girls who attend the camp are so intelligent that they have so many opportunities, and it becomes a struggle trying to decide what it is that they truly love,” Schwendiman said.

She said she feels many girls are deterred from entering technical fields because they feel they don’t fit the image of a stereotypical scientist, not because they lack ability.

“I really think it has a lot to do with just not having a lot of really good women role models in computer science,” Schwendiman said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here and the more girls go into it, the better support group you have.”