Mary Esther Middleton

A free week-long camp dedicated to generating interest in computer science and technology among Texas high school girls is in its 10th year of operation.

The First Bytes summer camp is a program intended to dismiss myths about computer science and close the gender gap in math and science fields.

“It was an idea of two [UT] professors here who wanted to do some kind of outreach program for women because of the under-representation of women in this field,” said Mary Esther Middleton, First Bytes program coordinator. By allowing high school girls to interact with women their own age and immerse themselves in computer science activities, the girls are able to get a taste of what the UT computer science department has to offer, Middleton said.

“We do get a good number of them coming into the computer science department. It varies from year to year but the idea is to expose them to as much computer science technical details as we can and encourage them to pursue math and science fields... we want to make them feel like they have some support,” Middleton said.

First Bytes summer campers Denise Boi and Michelle Chlou said the camp has cultivated their interest in making computer science a degree they plan on pursuing at UT.

Brianna Connelly, computer science sophomore and president of Women in Computer Sciences, said the camp is a huge step in the right direction towards helping women enter the computer science field.

“I think this is a great program. There’s so much to learn from all the lessons and projects,” Connelly said. “More importantly, I think it shatters what a lot of these girls think of as the stereotypical computer science image and shows them that there’s a lot of people who want to see them succeed.”

Camp coordinator Middleton said one of her former campers eventually attended UT, received a degree in computer science and is now back at the camp as a presenter for Google.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 18.2 percent of women in the U.S. were represented in the undergraduate computer science major.

Connelly said she believes women are hesitant to go into computer science because of the intimidation and perception that comes along.

“A lot of girls don’t become interested in computer science until they feel like it’s too late to start. They feel like because they haven’t been writing code since they were in middle school, they have too much to catch up on,” Connelly said. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Computer science is more about being able to adapt and learn things than it is about memorization.”

She said closing the gender gap requires changing the perception that computer science is an anti-social and masculine occupation.

“I think people have to stop seeing computer science as some nerd programming alone in a basement,” Connelly said. “Women tend to gravitate toward occupations that have more human interaction. In reality, computer science is very social. There are tons of group projects in college and it’s even more collaborative once you enter the industry.” 

Lauren Fuller checks the score while bowling in the Union Underground on Sunday night. Fuller and 59 other girls are part of the First Bytes Camp, which gets high school girls interested in computer science.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

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.”