Tutoring program sponsored by Douglass Residential College and a Rutgers math institute aims to boost number of women pursuing scientific and technical careers

Regina Garcia, Brittany Perry and Elizabeth Leonardo
Middle school STEM teacher and Rutgers alumna Brittany Perry, center, works with students Regina Garcia and Elizabeth Leonardo during an after-school computer science tutoring program at Theodore Schor Middle School in Piscataway.
Photo: Carl Blesch

'When someone says they can’t do it, I want to be that little voice in the back of their heads that says they can, and a little better!'
– Brittany Perry

Women computer science majors at Rutgers University are doing their part to inspire young girls to follow them into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The Rutgers students worked one-on-one with girls at Theodore Schor Middle School in Piscataway this past school year to coach them in programming, game design, robotics and fundamentals of computing such as binary numbers. The aim is to show girls computer technology can be understandable and fun. Learning and applying the basics early, they say, paves the way for success in later years.

“They were very bright and willing to learn,” said Rutgers rising junior Maria Fanelle, a member of the Douglass Residential College. “They have an obvious interest in the subject. We didn’t have that when I was in middle school.”

While women have made strides in many of the STEM fields, computer science and the information technologies remain a man’s world. In fact, the proportion of women in these fields actually dropped over the decades, from a third of college graduates in the 1980s to less than a fifth in recent years, a trend the Rutgers students hope to reverse.

Brittany Perry, the Schor teacher and Rutgers alumna who leads the after-school tutoring program, is especially motivated to prepare her students for success in STEM fields.

“I was one of few females in all my classes,” said Perry, who earned her undergraduate degree in math in 2012. She recalled feeling isolated as a woman, especially when a professor suggested she drop math “because I didn’t know everything off the top of my head.” Perry now teaches STEM classes to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, including an all-female STEM class this past year.

Maria Fanelle and Beri Kihdze
Rutgers computer science student Maria Fanelle coaches student Beri Kihdze on a computer programming exercise.
Photo: Carl Blesch

“I want them to outnumber men in their classes,” she said. “When someone says they can’t do it, I want to be that little voice in the back of their heads that says they can, and a little better!”

The Rutgers mentors provided visual examples of how programming, also called “coding,” works. The girls made simple computer games from scratch and programmed robots.

“It’s so amazing how you can take a simple line of code and make a computer do something,” said Lekha Rakundlia, a rising 7th grader at Schor. Her classmate, rising 8th grader Regina Garcia, echoed that sentiment. “I like how you can create anything using code,” she said. “I think I’ll be majoring in science or math.”

The Rutgers students tutor as part of a campus club called the Douglass-DIMACS Computing Corps, a partnership sponsored by the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS) and Douglass Residential College’s Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering.

Prachi Pendse led the Schor Middle School tutoring team. Pendse, who earned her master’s degree in computer science this past spring, was inspired to become a mentor after meeting computer science professor and DIMACS director Rebecca Wright. The mentoring that Pendse and her tutors do goes beyond teaching girls to write code.

Prachi Pendse and Maheen Makhdoon
Prachi Pendse, right, leader of a team of Rutgers tutors, helps student Maheen Makhdoon with the afternoon's assignment.
Photo: Carl Blesch

“Throughout the year, we talk about our experiences,” Pendse said. “We had 30 middle school girls visit Rutgers in April. We showed them where we learn, our classrooms and labs. The middle-schoolers were enthralled with college life.”

Mentor Helen See, a rising senior, said the students were initially confused with what she taught, “but when you show them what they can apply it to, a game online or a robot, they start to get excited.”

See personally knows the value of early STEM education.

“My high school didn’t have anything tech-related,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone into computer science unless my classmates started a club. They taught me how to code.”

Some Schor girls are no strangers to computer science, with parents who are software engineers at companies such as J. P. Morgan Chase, MetLife, Siemens and Verizon. But sometimes the Rutgers mentors helped the children understand what their parents’ work is all about.

“I saw my dad when he was working at home typing a bunch of letters and numbers,” said Manvir Chahal, a rising 8th grader. “It didn’t make sense to me. After programming robots, now I know it means something. It has a purpose.”

The mentors know the students aren’t the only ones who come away with new skills and insights.

“I learned a lot by teaching them, by explaining different concepts in a way that middle schoolers understand,” said Rosheen Chaudhry, also a rising senior. “That helps me everywhere, with non-technical people. I feel I know the concepts.”

The DIMACS-Douglass Computing Corps ran a similar after school tutoring program for a coed group at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in New Brunswick, led by Pendse and Linda Cook.

Media inquiries: Carl Blesch, 848-932-0550, cblesch@ucm.rutgers.edu