Santa Barbara High School juniors Maria De Angelis and Anna Brewer, students in the new Computer Science Academy, have started a summer camp to teach local middle school girls computer programming.

“Girls feel intimidated when there is only a tiny island of girls in a sea of boys, so we set out to solve this issue,” said DeAngelis, who together with CS Academy classmate Brewer applied for and won a grant to fund the camp.

“I once signed up for a ‘coed’ Java programming camp, something I was really excited about, only to drop out later when I realized I would be the only girl,” Brewer said. “And in addition to making girls feel safe signing up, having a girls-only camp lets us tailor the curriculum to be more interesting to girls.”

Brewer and De Angelis are among the first students to join the new Santa Barbara High School Computer Science Academy.

“There is a huge gender imbalance in computer science,” said Paul Muhl, the director of the academy. “Only 12 percent of computer science graduates are women. One of our goals at the Computer Science Academy is to have equal participation between girls and boys, and outreach to younger girls, as Anna and Maria are doing, is critical.”

Brewer and De Angelis are enthusiastic about coding. Brewer teaches classes at her former elementary school in MIT’s visual programming tool Scratch, the same tool that will be used at their summer camp, and De Angelis is a member of the CS Academy Robotics Team, which focuses on programming robots rather than building them. The camp, called Dream It, Code It, had no trouble getting girls to sign up, in contrast to other summer camps in robotics and computer science, which tend to have very low percentages of girls. The camp spaces sold out very quickly.

Dream It, Code It campers will learn the basics of computer programming by creating fun games and animations with MIT’s visual programming tool Scratch, and explore CS principles through hands-on, outdoor activities with CSUnplugged. The camp’s curriculum has been designed specifically to appeal to girls entering grades 6 through 9. They will build projects such as a virtual pet, code that controls a bird-shaped Finch robot, and a game teaching players about solving issues in their local community. Students will also learn about interesting careers in technology thanks to guest speakers and field trips to local tech companies.

Brewer and De Angelis received one of 45 AspireIT grants awarded nationwide by the National Center for Women and Information Technology to fund the camp. Both girls are also regional winners of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. Professor Zoe Wood of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is the faculty adviser for the camp, which will take place at the Santa Barbara High Computer Science Academy, the weeks of Aug. 11 and Aug. 18.

Dream It, Code It brings to a local level an effort that is being carried out on a national level by organizations such as the program’s sponsor, NCWIT. The goal of these efforts is to transform computer science into a diverse, mainstream field that draws females in similar numbers as the other technical sciences. Despite the fact that the number of computer science jobs is growing at twice the national average, only 10 percent of U.S. high schools offer CS programs, which means that only 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science. And less than 20 percent of these students are female. Dream It, Code It aims to change girls’ perceptions of computer science while they are still at an impressionable age, and prevent them from absorbing negative stereotypes by reinforcing positive ones. De Angelis and Brewer hope that some of these girls will go on to join the Santa Barbara High School Computer Science Academy, or a similar program, and maybe even pursue tech careers.

The Computer Science Academy is in its second year, and the number of participating students has increased to over 150. There are five CS courses offered, including several introductory courses, AP Computer Science, and Mobile Programming (for iPhone and iPad). Although students can apply to join a master program at the Academy, the CS classes are open to all Santa Barbara High students, even those who are not Academy members. Muhl also hopes to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in computer science and has been working with Santa Barbara High AVID teacher Joe Velasco and a parent outreach committee to spread awareness.

For more information on the camp, visit the website by clicking here. Click here for more information on the Santa Barbara High School Computer Science Academy.

— Barbara Keyani is the administrative services and communications coordinator for the Santa Barbara Unified School District.