Pitt Students Mentor High School Girls for Local App Development Challenge

Ariana Sutanto’s high school didn’t offer extensive opportunities for students to get involved in computer science, especially those part of minorities traditionally underrepresented in the field. When she heard of an opportunity to mentor local high school girls developing an app, she knew she had to participate.

“This is something that I personally wish I had gotten to do in high school,” the sophomore computer science major says. “There was no focus on increasing diversity within computer science, so I thought this challenge was really unique and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Sutanto is one of several Pitt students serving as a university mentor for the CGI I.T. Girl Challenge, which is in its second year. Female students and others with marginalized genders in 9th-12th grades from Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), New Outlook Academy, Best of the Batch Foundation, and Boys and Girls Club of Southwestern PA work with their peers to develop a mobile app, using app builders such as Thunkable or the MIT App Inventor. The team with the most innovative and creative mobile app design receives $20,000 in the form of a college scholarship that is to be split evenly among the winning team members.

The 2021 Challenge hosts five teams, and each team will collaborate with guidance from CGI mentors, as well as with university mentors from Pitt. Since mid-February, 10 female Pitt students, including Sutanto, have started meeting, virtually, with participants to guide them in their project and help answer questions.

Heather Fusko, a CGI Campus Recruiter involved in the I.T. Girl Challenge, says it’s important that student mentors don’t completely take over the process. Even though many of the high school participants don’t have extensive computer science backgrounds — some have none at all — the mentors are there to connect with their mentees through a shared interest and support students’ drive as they learn the app-building platforms. This will all come together in an exciting virtual final event on Friday, May 21, 2021.

“The participants coming from PPS and the other organizations are really seeing a role model in the University Mentors,” Fusko says. “We hope that as this collaboration continues, our high-school-aged participants find that a career in I.T. could be a possibility for them.” Overall, it has been a rewarding experience for all of those who are involved whether they are a participant, university mentor, or a CGI mentor.

The event is supported by STEM@CGI, a nationwide K-12 initiative designed to inspire students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in information technology. Fusko says CGI created the I.T. Girl Challenge with the intention of exposing female students to careers in STEM — something Sutanto acknowledges as invaluable to increasing diversity in tech fields.

“It’s all about exposing girls to even the idea of majoring in computer science,” Sutanto says. “Having this at high schools, even just advertising it [gives] girls a glimpse into what their future careers could be like.”