The Girls Create with Technology program was created five years ago by Dr. Cindy Howard, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Lewis University. The purpose of the program is to introduce girls to the many opportunities available to them in the field of Computer Science. The program offers monthly Saturday morning workshops to girls in grades 6 through 12 on topics such as programming, developing mobile apps, assembling electronic circuits, building computers, 3D printing and, this month, defending systems against cyber attack. It also offers an annual week-long summer camp in which participants build and program robots from microcontrollers and craft materials. In all of these activities, the girls are taught practical, interesting, and challenging computer and technology skills that pique their interest and inspire them to strive to learn more.
The program is one of the most important things the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences sponsors. Less than 20% of Computer Science students nationwide are female. Only 10,000 females graduated with a Computer Science degree in 2017 out of a total graduating class of 50,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster or much faster than average growth in employment opportunities for all career fields related to Computer Science. The relative scarcity of women preparing to pursue these opportunities is challenging the market’s ability to fill these roles.
In this month’s session, Computer Science Professor Eric Spangler and Computer Science graduate student Yesenia Gonalez taught 24 participants how to hack. They taught them how to break passwords so that they could learn how to choose good ones. They taught them how to retrieve data from a Unix file system so that they could learn how to protect sensitive data better. The best way to learn how to protect computer systems is to learn how people break them, and so learning hacking techniques is an essential component of cybersecurity education.
With the help of Computer Science students Francisco Cano, Maggie Ginzler, Alex Jonic, and Chastity Logue, the team led the participants through an exciting, hands-on introduction to the tools white-hat hackers – also called penetration testers – use to find vulnerabilities in corporate systems. They also emphasized to them the responsibility that comes with gaining this knowledge: it can cause immense harm, so it is vitally important that they use it only for good.
These kinds of lessons typify the practical, timely, important, and interesting skills and concepts the students who have attended Girls Create with Technology over the years have learned. With generous funding for materials and equipment from Caterpillar Foundation, Ecolab, the PPG Foundation and ARCO Murray Construction, the program has been able to diversify its offerings, covering not only relatively low-cost computer programming activities, but also costlier hardware-focused activities like building robots and printing 3D designs. Of all the things our department does, this is the one I think has the greatest impact on the community.
Under Dr. Howard’s consistently innovative and dedicated leadership, the Girls Create with Technology program has thrived. Her vision for the program and all her efforts to achieve it have resulted in a program that regularly opens doors to young women who might not otherwise have the chance to consider computing as a career field. Our nation needs more programs like this one so that the current gender imbalance in Computer Science fades into history as an inexplicable but temporary anomaly. Thankfully, we have an outstanding example at Lewis University.