STEM Series: Meet TJHSST’s Pooja Chandrashekar, ProjectCSGIRLS Founder and CEO

Pooja Chandrashekar, ProjectCSGIRLS

Pooja Chandrashekar, ProjectCSGIRLS

With graduation on the horizon in May, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology senior Pooja Chandrashekar has a lot going for her.

Her interest in computer science with applications to medicine have led her to establish ProjectCSGIRLS, a nonprofit organization aimed to cultivate a love for technology and computer science in girls and encourage them to pursue their interests and careers in these fields.

WashingtonExec: Where did the idea for ProjectCSGIRLS come from?

Pooja Chandrashekar: 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. Through ProjectCSGIRLS, I hope to show younger girls how to break the tech gender stereotypes and step confidently into a field as male-dominated as technology. I want to empower and equip them with the skills necessary to do this and prepare them for their futures as the technological leaders of tomorrow.

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.

The chief goal of ProjectCSGIRLS is to show girls that they can use technology for social impact and to make a difference in their communities because girls tend to gravitate towards careers or projects through which they can bring about a positive change. We want to show them that technology is a fantastic way to accomplish this.

WashingtonExec: What is the goal of ProjectCSGIRLS, and how does it go about obtaining this goal?

Pooja Chandrashekar: ProjectCSGIRLS is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to close the gender gap in computer science and technology through running a national computer science competition for middle school girls and workshops around the country.

The hands-on ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls challenges participants in sixth through eighth 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’re looking for projects that are powerful in their ability to change and disrupt the present in a positive way. Judges will select finalists, state winners, regional winners, and national winners. All regional winners will be invited to D.C. for our national gala, the ultimate celebration of girls in computing, in June 2015 during which they will participate in workshops, listen to guest speakers, tour tech companies, participate in a formal awards ceremony and showcase their projects to the public.

The chief goal of ProjectCSGIRLS is to show girls that they can use technology for social impact and to make a difference in their communities because girls tend to gravitate towards careers or projects through which they can bring about a positive change. We want to show them that technology is a fantastic way to accomplish this.

Last year, our inaugural year, the ProjectCSGIRLS competition was restricted to middle school girls in only Virginia, Maryland and D.C. and reached more than 100 girls. Projects we saw ranged from machine learning and image analysis software for speech analysis of war veterans with wounded lips to genetic algorithms for cybersecurity applications. After the success of the program last year, we decided to scale up to a national scale this year.

The 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS competition is open to all middle school girls residing in the continental United States. ProjectCSGIRLS is a youth-driven organization, meaning that the approximately 50 members of our Executive Team and Outreach Team are high school and college students from across the country.

Our goal this year is to reach more than 500 middle school girls nationally through the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls. We host open-ended workshops around the country that are run by members of the ProjectCSGIRLS team and have workshops currently scheduled in more than 10 states. We also work directly with global, national and local women in technology organizations and our partners include Girl Develop It, Code.org, Girls in Tech, Tech Girlz, The Scientista Foundation, Tech-Girls, Cyberjutsu Girls and GEMS.

WashingtonExec: What got you interested in STEM topics/computer science at a young age?

Pooja Chandrashekar: I have grown up in an environment that has always emphasized the importance of STEM and independent discovery. My parents are both engineers so I’m fortunate enough to have always had role models to look up to. I grew up tinkering with build-it-yourself kits and watching science documentaries so it was only natural for me to jump into research at the first chance I could get, which was middle school. I was lucky to go to a middle school that included computer science in its curriculum, something which sparked my love for programming through web design, robotics, and game programming.

I carried my passion over into high school, taking AP Computer Science my freshman year and Artificial Intelligence, Parallel Computing, and Mobile App Development in subsequent years. I’ve also been involved with the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) for the past four years and so I’ve had the opportunity to be part of an incredibly inspiring community of high school women interested in technology.

WashingtonExec: How would you define success for ProjectCSGIRLS?

Pooja Chandrashekar: We hope to reach more than 500 middle school girls nationally this year through the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls. Success for ProjectCSGIRLS would be to instill a love for computing and technology in hundreds of girls across the country and inspire them to pursue these fields in the future. We want to show them how innovative and creative they can be and encourage them to develop ideas that are powerful, disruptive, and cutting-edge.

WashingtonExec: What is one misconception you believe girls have about STEM topics/computer science?

Pooja Chandrashekar: I think a lot of girls see computer science as a very uncreative and dry field, which is the exact opposite of what it actually is. Computer science is among the most creative, applicable and interesting fields because it has such a broad range of applications from artificial intelligence to robotics to cybersecurity. And what makes it so interesting, dynamic and malleable is how rapidly it changes and evolves.

Another misconception that girls have regarding computer science is that it can’t be used to help or connect people, which is a key perception that we’re trying to dispel through ProjectCSGIRLS. We need to show girls how technology can be used to drive positive social change.

Finally, there’s the negative programmer stereotype that permeates our social culture today and we need to make it a priority to get away from that and make sure that girls are exposed to real female role models.

WashingtonExec: Do you have a mentor/someone who encouraged you to pursue this field?

Pooja Chandrashekar: My mom was definitely, and continues to be, my first mentor for pursuing computer science and STEM. Apart from her, Dr. James Ellenbogen, Chief Scientist of the MITRE Corporation Nanoystems and Emerging Technologies Group, has been an incredible mentor for me during the past few years. I’ve interned as part of the MITRE Corporation’s Nanosystems and Emerging Technologies Group for the past two years, working on pinpoint landmark geolocation and mild traumatic brain injury research and Dr. Ellenbogen’s encouragement and guidance has been essential in helping me develop as a scientist and researcher.

WashingtonExec: What does the public need to understand, know and/or do in order for the STEM and computer science fields not to be so male-dominated?

Pooja Chandrashekar: First of all, I believe that computer science should be a part of every middle school’s curriculum because in order to get girls interested in computer science, we need to ensure that computer science is something they are exposed to at a young age. We also need to provide them with female role models so that they have someone to look up to when entering a field as male-dominated in computer science. This can be done by bringing in female guest speakers to workshops, science classes or coding clubs. Doing so would also provide girls with examples of how applicable computer science is and inspire them to take on their own technical projects.

In addition, as I mentioned previously, we need to show girls how technology can be used to make a social impact, which is exactly what we’re trying to do with ProjectCSGIRLS.

Finally, we need to provide girls with a community of other girls and women in technology so that they can share experiences, receive mentorship and collaborate. Women often feel left out in technical environments because of the lack of other women in the room, so this is especially important to drive change in corporations and organizations.

At the corporate, startup, and organization level, we need to be more transparent about publishing diversity statistics and place more focus on increasing diversity and inclusion.

So the main takeaway here is that we need to start early, ideally in middle school, to get girls interested and excited about technology, provide them with a supportive environment as they move forward in their careers and take an active interest in increasing diversity and promoting inclusion within corporate culture.

WashingtonExec: Anything else?

Pooja Chandrashekar: We’re currently looking for middle school teachers, educators, organization leaders, and other interested people to help us promote the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls and encourage middle school girls to participate. If you’d like to get involved, send us a quick note at info@projectcsgirls.com. The deadline to register is Feb. 15, 2015, but if participants would like to request a mentor, they must register by Jan. 1, 2015. The deadline to submit projects is March 15, 2015. If you are interested in sponsoring ProjectCSGIRLS, please email us at sponsorus@projectcsgirls.com.

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