Skip to main content

When computer science major Bhavani Panda first came to UCI, she was determined to join a campus club related to her major. So when she learned about Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS), it was a perfect fit. Now the third-year undergraduate is co-chair of WICS Community Outreach with fellow computer science major Diellza Sopi, and the two have developed a new program, Just Code It, focused on introducing middle school girls to web development. Although WICS has helped with similar outreach programs in the past, this is the first time the student club has organized its own program from scratch.

Students learning during a Just Code It session at UCI.

“When I became co-chair, I wanted WICS to directly host a program of our own, as we had the time and resources to do so,” says Panda. “The impact these programs have on the kids that attend is astonishing.”

Sopi agrees, noting that her goal was to create the kind of program she wishes had been available to her. As the oldest child growing up in an immigrant family, she admits she had little confidence in her computer science abilities until halfway through her freshman year at UCI. “I wanted to give middle school students a chance to try what I did not when I was growing up,” says Sopi, who originally entered UCI as a biology major but later switched to the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “I want to ensure young girls have the chance to explore coding in a supportive environment before they enter university.”

So Panda and Sopi worked with their WICS Outreach team to build the Just Code It program and to advertise it to middle schools in Santa Ana and Irvine. Their efforts paid off in February when 14 girls attended the free four-week web development program at UCI. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, students learned the basics of HTML/CSS, JavaScript and Bootstrap. “Many of these girls had never coded before,” says Panda, “so it was amazing to see them come in without any prior experience and come out with a website that they can show to their parents and friends.”

Seeing the girls’ enthusiasm and success validated the program’s potential. “It really affirms to us that this is a valuable resource for our community that helps cultivate what could be a lifelong love for ICS to these girls in the future,” says Sopi.

The program aims to provide a “fun and engaging” introduction to computer science, with two different teachers per day, accompanied by five or six mentors, all from WICS. Panda conducted a survey after the course, and feedback was very positive. “They really enjoyed the program,” she says, “and found the mentors to be quite friendly and helpful.” 

The parents were impressed too. “My daughter had an excellent time learning so much in the WICS Just Code It program,” said one parent. “Thanks so much WICS for empowering these brilliant young minds!”

The WICS teachers and mentors and the Just Code It students with their program certificates.

WICS plans to host more Just Code It sessions in the future, focusing on mobile app development as well. Although there won’t be any programs hosted in the spring due to the global pandemic, Panda and Sopi are already making plans for the fall quarter. “Hopefully, with enough interest,” says Panda, “we can make Just Code It a regular offering!”

Shani Murray