This summer, Saumya Rawat, a senior at Dallas’ School of Science and Engineering Magnet, worked with Dr. Janell Straach, a CS Professor and the Director of the UT Dallas Center for Engaging Women in Cyber Security, to offer a 3-day IT Empowerment For Her app development camp for 21 middle school girls from underrepresented areas in Dallas-Fort Worth. Saumya, a recipient of the NCWIT National Award for Aspirations in Computing (AiC), decided to introduce this new initiative for the Dallas-Fort Worth area after noticing a lack of a girls-only STEM programs run by actual girls themselves interested in STEM. IT Empowerment for Her intended to empower DFW girls through opportunities, skill programs, mentorship, and an introduction to STEM careers, with a focus on Information Technology and Computer Science. The program collaborated with the National Center of Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) as well as the UT Dallas Computer Science Department to provide a free 3-day camp.
During the 3-day workshop session, middle school girls learned MIT App Inventor, met with student and professional mentors, and explored STEM career options. Using their new understanding of CS, the girls teamed up to created their own community impacting apps. The apps included a pet adoption finder, an informational app on how to save the bees, a crime watch for the Dallas area, a recycling app, a vacation and activity finder, and an app to help report animal abuse. By the end of the session, the girls had a new view on the IT field and left empowered to pursue technology careers.
A big part of the camp was having the young girls meet women in STEM as a way to introduce them to accomplished women in technology. Over the three days, the campers were able to meet with IT professionals and mentors from companies like Citi Bank, IBM, Women Who Compute (WWC), Credera, Bank of America, USAA, and Tech Titans, to help introduce and guide them through various STEM careers and courses. The girls were taught by local high school girls volunteering from Dallas’ School of Science and Engineering Magnet. Each of the volunteers served as a student mentor and provided guidance for the younger girls. The student volunteers came from diverse backgrounds, which made it easier for the young girls to connect with their mentors.
We spoke to Saumya about the IT Empowerment for Her camp and her work promoting STEM education within the North Texas community. Below is our conversation with her.
What inspired you to create this course and why?
While I have always been interested in STEM, I’ve continued to notice a lack of other girls interested in the field. My own experiences have shown me the importance of encouragement and engagement. In 7th grade, my parents enrolled me in a weekly Java camp, the first of many programs. On the first day I expected to make many new friends; however, when I entered the room I realized I was the only girl. As a 13-year-old, I was nervous and initially wanted to leave, but my mom insisted that I at least try the class. An hour later, I instantly knew that I wanted to pursue a career in technology and became committed to encouraging other girls to join STEM.
Why do you believe this workshop is so important to young women?
There are many unreasonable restrictions and stereotypes against a girl’s education. It exists across the world, including in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Girls are often discouraged from choosing STEM classes, and almost never receive the opportunity to take Computer Science or Technology related courses. IT Empowerment for Her provides younger girls with an introduction to STEM concepts to boost their confidence and to prepare them to surpass these unprecedented barriers. We hope to empower and increase the confidence of these girls through opportunities, skill programs, mentorship, and STEM career explorations.
Why do you think it is so important now more than ever to help young women get interested in STEM?
STEM is a growing and promising field. Currently, there are many resources available to expand your STEM knowledge, but many young women often believe they are not capable. Through free girls-only STEM programs, we are able to give girls a safe environment to try new things and expand on their learning. With this exposure, girls are more likely to choose STEM classes and this, in turn, will increase the percentage of women in this field.
Have you always been involved in community outreach?
I am very appreciative of the opportunities my community has offered to me, and I have always been involved in giving back and empowering others through many avenues. I have volunteered and interned at many local hospitals and the Red Cross. Also, for the last five years, I have been teaching kids with special needs to swim with the Coppell Special Olympics team. Similarly, I am the Outreach Captain for First Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 5057 Robobusters.
I understand that most of the young girls came from all over Dallas, do you know what school districts most of them came from?
Most of the girls came from Dallas ISD, Garland ISD, and Richardson ISD. We specifically wanted to provide free programs for girls from underrepresented, low-income areas of Dallas, including the South Dallas areas of Dallas ISD.
What were the names of the other counselors/mentors that helped you with the course and what schools do they attend? You guys were all such great mentors for these young girls!
Olivia Castro (Home-Schooled), Emelia McLaughlin (School of Science and Engineering), Dalia Quezada Campos (School of Science and Engineering), Geonit Knecht (School of Science and Engineering), Jennifer Patino (School of Science and Engineering), and myself, Saumya Rawat (School of Science and Engineering).
Did you learn anything new from these young women?
I was amazed at how talented the middle school girls are. While explaining the Whack-A-Mole tutorial, many of the girls customized their first Android app with different colors and objects. Some girls used ice cream and Penguins in place of the mole! The girls really showcased their individual personalities with their projects and taught me how far your imagination could go.
I heard you say something to Dr. Straach about a chat you had with one of the parents about one of the girls’ older brother who studies CS … Would you mind telling me a little bit about this?
During the 3rd day of our App Development workshop for underrepresented middle school girls, I was approached by one of the parents who recognized me from the NBC5 DFW segment in which I was featured. The parent told me how her daughter was initially apprehensive about showing interest in technology as her older brother was focused in Computer Science; however, after only two full days of our program, her daughter was extremely excited to build her own app and showed great interest in pursuing a STEM career.
Overall, in the end what did you gain personally from offering this course?
After six months of preparation for IT Empowerment for Her, I gained appreciation for the coordination and planning it takes to successfully host my own free App Development program. I realized how important it is to balance technical learning with social activities to keep the girls engaged and interested. Many of the strategies I used proved successful, including playing empowering music throughout the workshop. I gained lots of leadership and event-planning experience that I will use for future programs and throughout my schooling and career.
What was your most memorable moment?
The girls were given the task of building their own community impacting apps in groups of 3-4. While I was walking around to each group and discussing their ideas and their feasibility, I was very impressed by their creativity and determination. These girls truly represent the confident and passionate girls the STEM industry needs and their ambition is incredible. I will never forget how these girls came up with creative solutions to solve problems around them.
Do you plan to try to host one of these workshops again and do you think it was a success?
Yes! I am very proud that the girls felt empowered and comfortable with creating their own apps, and our first workshop was a definite success. I recently won another grant from the National Center of Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) to host similar programs throughout the school year. IT Empowerment for Her would love to continue to host STEM programs, and we are looking to offer robotics immersion weekends in the future.
Saumya Rawat is a senior at the School of Science and Engineering, located in Dallas, TX. At age 13, after being the only girl in her weekend Java class, Saumya decided to devote her time to bring more girls into STEM, IT, and CS. She founded IT Empowerment for Her in 2017. For her efforts, Saumya was awarded the 2017 National Award for Aspirations in Computing from NCWIT. Click here to read more about Saumya.
After attending college and completing a PhD in Computer Science, she hopes to start her own technology-based company that would provide innovative solutions to various industries by creating life-saving applications. As a female entrepreneur in the technology field, Ms. Rawat plans to continue creating community-support programs such as Aspirations and the IT Empowerment for Her summer course, to encourage other women to become involved in the field of computer science.
ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT
The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 2,400 bachelor’s-degree students, more than 1,000 master’s students, 150 Ph.D. students, 53 tenure-track faculty members and 38 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2017. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.