Inspiring girls to be the tech leaders of tomorrow

“Ctrl C!” shouts a group of middle school girls in unison.

While moving through a series of obstacles, a University at Buffalo student has suddenly gotten stuck, unable to move forward. The student, pretending to be a computer, can only move based on the exact instructions the girls have provided, but their latest command was not specific enough, resulting in an error. By calling out “Ctrl C,” the girls can stop the “computer,” rethink their “programming” and issue a new set of instructions to complete the obstacles.

The task was part of a series of workshops during the first-ever Girl Tech Day hosted by the University at Buffalo School of Management in September. Sponsored by the UB President’s Circle, the free event was open to girls 10-14 from across Western New York to introduce them to basic coding and programming skills.

“We hoped to inspire young girls and show them all of the avenues they could pursue once they reach college,” says Destiney Plaza, a master’s student in management information systems, who spearheaded the event. “By the end of the day, participants told us they would consider going into engineering or computer science in the future — that was amazing.”

The day started with an exercise to help the girls understand that a computer isn’t just a desktop or laptop — it’s a programmable device found in cars, phones, video game systems and countless other everyday items. Later, in sessions designed by Jennifer Winikus, teaching assistant professor in the UB Computer Science and Engineering Department, participants programmed basic video games on Scratch and created their own abacus to learn how to compute binary numbers.

Student volunteers from the School of Management and Computer Science and Engineering Department helped run the day’s activities.

“Excitement about STEM has to be fostered at an early age,” says Joana Gaia, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems in the School of Management, who co-founded Girl Tech Day with Plaza and fellow faculty member Sanjukta Das Smith. “The speed in which the girls grasped programming concepts was astounding, and parents particularly commented on how powerful it was for their daughters to learn those concepts from college-aged women who actually apply those skills every day.”

David Murray, a cybersecurity expert and clinical associate professor of management science and systems, led a workshop on computer security and how to set a strong password.

“One general principle we always try to instill is that there is no such thing as 100% security,” Murray says. “Even passwords aren’t 100% secure, but there are things we can do to make them more secure.”

The girls’ favorite activity was programming a Raspberry Pi, a mini-computer, to interact with a button and LED light.

“Their smiles lit up when they got the bulb to illuminate,” Plaza says. “They never knew how much work it took to get a computer to operate correctly, so they found that activity fascinating.”

Students attended the daylong event from City Honors, Buffalo United Charter School and Universal School in Buffalo; Heim and Transit middle schools in Williamsville; and Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna.

By the end of the day, the girls had learned a critical lesson: It’s smart people with valuable programming skills who make computers work — and they can be one of them.

“Before they left, we asked them what they learned, and the girls yelled, ‘Computers are dumb!’” Plaza says. “They saw that computers don’t operate on their own and that we are the intelligent ones who can program them to do incredible things — that’s what Girl Tech Day was all about.”