High Schooler Creates Tech Competition to Mentor Middle School Girls

The Washington D.C. Metro Area is full of dozens of organizations dedicated to lowering the barrier for women and minorities in tech. DCFemTech, a collective of DC & Metro area women and minority focused organizations is launching a series of interviews with women in tech leaders to highlight their group’s mission, culture and events. The goal is to help women and minorities navigate the local tech scene to find a group that best fits their needs.

This week, we interviewed Pooja Chandrashekar, Founder and CEO of ProjectCSGIRLS.

Pooja ChandrashekarProjectCSGIRLS shows middle school girls how to break gender stereotypes in tech.

ProjectCSGIRLS is a national youth-driven nonprofit working to close the tech gender gap through running a national computer science competition for middle school girls and workshops around the country. The ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls challenges participants in 6th to 8th grade to build something using computer science and technology that can help solve an imminent social problem under one of three themes – global health, a safer world, and intelligent technology. [We] pair students with mentors who are either college students majoring in engineering or tech professionals working in the industry [to] prepare them for their futures as the technological leaders of tomorrow.

The lack of women in tech role models in Pooja’s High School inspired her to take action.

I’m currently a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the lack of women in technology is a problem very close to me. I have personally experienced the gender gap in my school and technical experiences, and at times, it has been very discouraging. This was what motivated me to found ProjectCSGIRLS during my sophomore year of high school. During high school, I’ve seen many girls turn away from pursuing computer science because of the negative stereotypes surrounding the field and because of the lack of female role models, so I wanted to focus my work on the critical middle school period and build a national platform for encouraging girls in technology. Middle school is not only the time during which a large chunk of learning and development occurs, but it is also the time when students are most susceptible to peer pressure and stereotypes. ProjectCSGIRLS aims to dispel these negative stereotypes and provide girls with a community that supports their technological endeavors and showcases their work.

After a successful inaugural year in the DC Metro Area, ProjectCSGIRLS announced that the competition will now be open to all middle school girls across the country.

In 2014, our inaugural year, the ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle Schools was restricted to girls in only Virginia, Maryland, and DC and reached over 100 girls. The projects we saw were incredible, ranging from machine learning and image analysis software for lip detection and speech analysis of veterans with wounded lips to genetic algorithms for cybersecurity applications, and showed us how powerful this initiative was in helping the girls involved see the opportunities and potential in technology and computer science. [With the] success and positive feedback we received last year, I decided to take ProjectCSGIRLS national this year. The 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS Competition is now open to all middle school girls residing in the continental United States and our goal is to reach hundreds of girls nationally.

ProjectCSGIRLSUsing technology for social impact and to make a difference in their communities inspires middle school girls to consider a career in tech.

I love what I do for ProjectCSGIRLS because showing these young girls how creative they can be and seeing them go off and use their newly learned skills to develop products, games, or apps is incredible. Computer science is quickly becoming applicable to every field of study so it’s important that every student be equipped with the necessary knowledge. I’m motivated to keep doing what I’m doing because I know it will make a difference to so many. I’ve had parents come up to me and say that participating in the ProjectCSGIRLS competition completely changed their daughter’s perception of computer science. It’s also great to see the tech community responding to work like mine by releasing diversity statistics, passing legislation, and starting new initiatives to support women in tech.

Up next: The June 2015 National Gala to celebrate the winners of the competition.

We will be hosting a national gala in DC in June of 2015 for the winners, who in this two-day event will have the chance to tour tech companies, listen to guest speakers, and participate in workshops. The national gala event will be a celebration of girls in computing, a platform to honor the winners, and a forum to discuss the importance of women in technology. The event will feature guest speakers and activities and will open the girls’ eyes to technology and computer science, showing them how exciting these fields are. They will also get the opportunity to showcase their projects to the public during the event.

The ProjectCSGIRLS team is looking for sponsorships and people to attend the National Gala, which will be held June 6th – 7th at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, who will be able to view participants’ projects on display and speak with participants. If you are interested in helping out, please reach out to Pooja Chandrashekar at pooja@projectcsgirls.com. For more information, check out their website or follow them on Twitter at @projectcsgirls.

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Written by:
Stephanie is Lead Designer and co-founder of Landmark, a navigation app for walking directions based on photos of buildings and landmarks. Stephanie was a guest at Y Combinator’s prestigious Female Founders Conference and was profiled in The Washington Post. Actively involved in the DC community, she is a co-producer of the DC Tech Meetup and is actively involved in encouraging technology education and mentorship for women. Follow her on Twitter @nguyenist.
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