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April 5, 2019

Professor Irani’s Behind-the-Scenes Support of Coding Courses for Girls

Computer Science Professor Sandy Irani teaches courses on discrete mathematics and studies quantum information and computation and online algorithms, so it’s no surprise to see her on campus in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). You might be surprised, however, to also find her in a classroom full of middle school girls, along with Hana and Miya Stauss, 17-year old twins who attend Sage Hill School with Irani’s daughter.

Irani is actively involved at the school, so when Hana and Miya decided to start a coding club, a Sage Hill teacher put them in contact with the UCI professor. “Their goal was to introduce some coding concepts to all Sage students,” says Irani, “even if they didn’t feel up to taking the AP Computer Science course, which can be very challenging.” So Irani reached out to ICS graduate students on their behalf, recruiting volunteer instructors for the club.

When the Stauss sisters later decided to branch out beyond the high school, Irani again stepped in to help. Hana and Miya applied for funding through the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) AspireIT program to teach coding to middle school girls in Santa Ana. They taught a week-long course in the summer of 2018 focused on the Ruby programming language and coordinated a second course held weekly from January to March 2019, taught by UCI students Koosha Azartash and Matthew McLaughlin.

“AspireIT requires every class they sponsor to have a ‘program partner,’ which is basically a professional in a computing-related field employed at a university or company,” says Irani, explaining her involvement with the courses. “The grant money was given officially to UCI, and I helped administer the funds.” The funded courses were held at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana and offered exclusively to middle schools girls.

Sandy Irani in an interview with ABC7 Eyewitness News, talking about the coding classes started by Hana and Miya Stauss.

Irani met periodically with Hana and Miya to help them plan the courses, and she attended both the first and last class of each course, briefly talking to students about majoring in a computing-related field. Irani herself was encouraged to major in electrical engineering and computer sciences by her father, who was a professor of EECS at the University of Michigan. “So I had a strong role model in my own household,” she admits.

“The girls in these classes are from underserved communities and would normally never even dream that a career in a computing-related field is a possibility for them,” she explains. “Just introducing them to basic coding concepts helps break down barriers and gets them excited about coding.”

Irani helps middle school girls learn to code. (Photo courtesy of ABC7)

This isn’t the only example of high school students introducing computer science to underserved communities. Milan Narula and Katherine McPhie of University High School founded Code Open Sesame to teach coding to children at local homeless shelters. Although Irani isn’t directly involved with the club, Narula explains that she first discovered coding when Irani and ICS student Medhavi Sikaria ’16 taught a coding workshop for middle school girls. “Professor Irani was very supportive,” says Narula. In fact, Irani’s support exists on a wide spectrum. As the ICS Equity Advisor, she also helped ICS female graduate students network and build a community of IT professionals.

Yet Irani prefers to downplay her role, instead focusing on the students. In talking about the courses at the Boys and Girls Club, she says “it’s been thrilling to see Hana and Miya start these classes and help introduce coding to so many kids in Orange County.” Praising the twins for breaking down stereotypes of the typical computer scientist, she adds that “this in turn will inspire more girls to choose a path in information technology.” And when they do, they’ll find in Irani a supportive role model eager to help pave the way for their success, because, as she sees it, “it’s an exciting time to be involved with education and computer science.”

Watch the ABC7 Cool Kids segment featuring Miya, Hana and Irani:

Shani Murray