Kickstarting the first year for women in computer science

CS KickStart is a free week long summer program for incoming first-year students that aims to improve the enrollment and persistence of women in CS.

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CS KickStart participants get a robot demonstration.

The third annual CS KickStart gave 22 incoming women in CS a hands-on look at the skills and careers on offer in the world of computing. CS KickStart is a free week-long summer program for first-year students that aims to improve the enrollment and persistence of women in CS and give women a voice in shaping the future through technology.

The organizers of the 2018 program were Sage Renstrom-Richards, Meghana Somsaale, Rebecca Andrews, Jenny Sokol, and Audrey Ladd. Through the program, they strive to strengthen the community of women in CS and expose them to the diversity of the tech industry. During the week, the program organizers facilitated conversations about diversity, taught participants how to program, provided them with campus resources, and showed them the applications of computer science in academia and industry.

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CS KickStart's 2018 organizers, Jenny Sokol, Sage Renstrom-Richards, Meghana Somsaale, Rebecca Andrews, Audrey Ladd

“We make a huge effort to show the participants that if they decide to pursue computer science, they won’t be limited to basic software engineering,” says Andrews. “We set up faculty talks, PhD lab tours, and industry events so they can see that a computer science degree can complement almost any interest they have, from medicine, to business, to the social sciences.”

This year, participants worked on lab projects, attended faculty talks, and toured local businesses to get a broad picture of the different career options in computer science.

The main draw of the event was its series of labs and workshops that taught students a number of basic CS skills. The program offered seven python labs that covered loops, functions, lists, and other coding basics, an introductory C++ lab, an Arduino lab, and a computer architecture lab that gave them the chance to tear apart old computers and find parts.

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Trishani Patel and Julia Trautmann tear apart a computer in a hardware lab.

Students toured Atomic Object, an Ann Arbor-based company that provides custom software to client companies, and Arbor Networks, a network visibility and security company. In addition they attended a panel of five industry guests, learning about workplace culture, working as a woman in tech, and how they can prepare themselves for the workforce.

Faculty speakers included Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the School of Information; John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering John Laird; Prof. Reetuparna Das; and the work of Research Prof. Roya Ensafi, presented by her PhD student Reethika Ramesh.

Throughout the week’s events, organizers put an emphasis on building community among the participants, says Andrews.

“When they begin to face the frustrations of debugging or the doubt that comes from imposter syndrome,” she says, “we want the participants to still have a group of people that support them, understand their struggles, and encourage them to stick with it.”

Andrews considers herself one of KickStart’s success stories, and has now helped organize the event twice.

“I participated in CS KickStart before my freshman year began, and I don’t think I’d be studying computer science without it,” Andrews says. “It gave me confidence going into my freshman year that I could pursue CS and be successful, despite not having any coding experience.”

CS KickStart's 2018 attendees Enlarge
CS KickStart's 2018 attendees
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