On the same weekend that the latest Avengers movie dominated pop culture, several dozen middle school girls came to the University of Chicago campus for a day-long adventure in the world of computer science. Instead of battling intergalactic threats, they fought that most insidious of Chicago villains — a late April snowstorm — to learn about data visualization, cryptography, digital sound, and other tech superpowers from UChicago CS students and faculty.
The superpowHer event, organized by UChicago CS student group compileHer, themed its day of educational activities with a comic book flair, sending each group of girls on a mission to save their city from a dangerous computer virus. Attendees learned how to query a database, encrypt and decode secret messages, craft an unbreakable password, and many more handy skills, receiving clues along the way that helped them solve the overall story conflict.
“The theme of our event very intentionally subverts the dominant narrative around who a superhero is and what a superhero looks like,” said Devshi Mehrotra, a fourth-year computer science student and director of compileHer. “By putting young girls at the front and center of our fictional storyline, we hoped to help each and every single one of our students recognize the full scope of their power.”
[Hear more about compileHer and its mission to spark a passion for tech in middle school girls in a recent feature on WBEZ Radio.]
But first, the superheroes-in-training were “briefed” by inspirational talks from Jamila Parham, founder of STEM diversity organization The Tech Unicorn, and Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of women in computing organization AnitaB.org. Both women recounted their own path to a career in the tech industry, as well as the “superpowers” and heroes they discovered along the way — luminaries of computer science and technology such a Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson, and Jessica Matthews.
“It’s important that we take our superpower and make an impact on the world today,” Wilkerson said. “Women, out of the empathy of our experiences, create products and services that serve humanity. We need you to bring your superpower to the table called tech.”
An animated video then introduced the girls to superheroes Encryptogirl, Data Woman, and Sound Surfer, each created and voiced by compileHer volunteers. The characters symbolized the activities that filled the rest of the day, taught by CS faculty and more than 110 board members and student volunteers.
“The superhero theme communicated to students that technology can revolutionize present society,” said Shriya Bansal, a first-year student and compileHer board member. “Each module helped the students receive a better understanding of their own strengths and superpowers. Despite the fictional context, this theme provided them with a frame of reference as to how they can utilize their skills to improve the world from their own perspectives.
In one room, students learned about data visualization by building Lego “cityscapes” and hiding them inside a box, then exchanging boxes with partners who probed the hidden architecture and graphed measurements onto a grid. The exercise and 3-D printed materials, created by CS associate professor Gordon Kindlmann, taught girls in analog fashion how visualization can be used as a detective’s tool to reveal and depict hidden structures in data.
The day’s superheroes also trekked across a snowy campus to the new Media Arts, Data and Design Center, where they tinkered with creating and filtering sounds using the Pure Data programming language to experience the signal processing methods behind popular technologies such as Siri and Alexa.
Other activities introduced students to databases using tables of Marvel movies, stars, and characters (naturally) or demonstrated how to build a strong password and asked students to build create a persuasive password meter to encourage good security habits. A cryptography demonstration by CS faculty David Cash and Andrew Drucker talked about the history of code-making and -breaking before and after computers, and challenged students to crack codes themselves, revealing a message particularly relevant to the day’s theme of superheroes and technology: “with great power comes great responsibility.”
“As compileHer's modules lead, I always aim to have our lessons inspire our students and foster a better understanding and love for computer science,” said Christopher Choy, a fourth-year computer science major. “More broadly, however, I hope the girls will have taken away a feeling of accomplishment and empowerment that will give them the confidence to pursue any of their passions, whatever they may be.”
[Photos by Sam Schwartz, Camelia Malkami, Jiaqi Gao, Olivia Sturman]