Despite the coronavirus pandemic, a nonprofit organization created by Los Altos resident and Harker School senior Saloni Shah and two of her friends is forging ahead with its third annual all-girls coding competition.
Shah – co-founder of the Girls Programming League – said the GPL Challenge will be held virtually this year, scheduled 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 19 via Zoom.
Students in groups of three or fewer are challenged to solve 10 algorithmic coding problems in two hours, in either the Novice or Advanced divisions, according to the group’s website. The competition is open to all female middle and high school students. Winners will a gift card, trophy and certificate. Registration closes Saturday.
In addition to the coding competition, the challenge will feature keynote speaker Meredith Lee from UC Berkeley’s West Big Data Innovation Hub, along with a women-in-STEM panel discussion on COVID-19. The panel will include Sandra Butler, associate director, Springboard Studio at Massachusetts General Hospital; Priyanka Surio, director of data analytics and public health at the nonprofit ASTHO; Nita Madhav, CEO of Metabiota, which aims to make the world less resilient to epidemics; and Dr. Caroline Buckee of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Bridging the gap
With the Girls Programming League’s stated mission to “inspire and empower female students in learning computer programming and STEM,” the GPL Challenge is Shah’s “fulfillment of (her) dreams to bridge the gender gap” in the field, she said.
Shah’s passion for gender parity in computer science began soon after she first learned how to code.
“When I was in seventh grade, (my brother) played a prank on me – whenever I was listening to Spotify, my music would randomly switch to the ‘Teletubbies’ theme song,” she said. “With a few lines of code, he was remotely hacking my playlist. I was in awe at the ability to create magic, and I begged him to teach me to code.”
Shah then started coding for her robotics team, completed introductory programming classes online through Coursera and took post-Advanced Placement coding classes in high school.
As an officer of her school’s programming club, Shah began to see a large gender gap in the subject area; the biggest drop-off of girls in computer science is from ages 13-17, she noted.
“I noticed a rather wide and increasing gender gap in programming competitions – there were only 30 girls among 200 participants at (the club’s) yearly event,” she said.
As a result, Shah and friends Katherine Tian and Eileen Li founded the Girls Programming League in 2018. The group first focused on supporting girls in underfunded school districts with free coding classes, summer workshops, mentoring sessions and more, according to Shah. That year, they also hosted their first coding competition, and the following year, the competition expanded.
“The event brought together 104 girls from 42 schools for a programming contest, keynote speeches and a (women in STEM) panel,” she said. “I received a $1,000 grant from AI4ALL to host another successful GPL Challenge 2019 in which an overwhelming 140-plus girls competed in a friendly and encouraging environment, connected with each other, and listened to amazing female speakers share their expertise and advice on their career path as a woman in STEM.”
Each year, putting together the GPL Challenge requires a “tremendous amount of work,” Shah said, including designing the coding problems, reaching out to sponsors and applying for grants. The first year, only Shah, her co-founders and their adviser and teacher Susan King organized the event; now the team has expanded to include 10 volunteers. In addition, finding speakers and panelists to attend the event each year was surprisingly successful.
“I initially used my personal network to reach out to potential speakers,” she said. “We also tapped into the nearby universities for professors and postdoctoral students that were working on interesting projects and research in that field. … It was very fulfilling to see that, given the mission of the club, we received quick and thorough responses from the people that we reached out to and their eagerness to be involved with such a mission.”
This year, a wrench was thrown in Shah’s plans with the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, she is modeling the virtual event on similar, in-person events held in previous years by using breakout rooms to isolate the teams and maintaining a question-and-answer format with guest speakers. She is taking advantage of the virtual nature of the event to further expand by inviting more guest speakers and attendees.
“We decided to cast our net wide and take the opportunity to invite speakers whom we could not have tapped into during a regular year due to budget constraints,” Shah said. “We received amazing responses, as is evident from the speaker list. … Moreover, since the event is virtual, we are promoting this event on social media and to several schools and student groups all across the country and we expect students from all around the U.S. to participate from the comfort of their homes.”
With the event fast approaching, Shah is excited for this year’s GPL Challenge.
Watching participants return every year, seeing the number of participants grow, listening to the engaging conversations of the panelists and the “spark in the eyes of the participants” thrills her, she said.
“I hope that we are able to reach many such teams from far as we are virtual this year,” Shah added. “After all, our goal is to bring together a large group of young girls interested in computer science together so we can have an opportunity to build a community of budding female programmers in computer science.”
To register and for more information, visit girlsprogrammingleague.org.