Operation reboot: Student group aims to bridge the diversity gap

Swati Rampalli and Sree Pemma went into STEM because it gave them an opportunity to do anything they put their minds to. Now, they’re making sure everyone else can have that opportunity as well. Rampalli and Pemma, both juniors studying computer science, started a new student group last fall called Code the Gap.

Their mission: to expose local K-12 youth from historically underrepresented groups to the possibilities of computer science.

Code the Gap is working with Twin Cities schools to teach yearlong courses—via Zoom, for now—in programming and other computer science concepts to young students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to STEM. The classes will also feature guest speakers from tech companies to give the students an idea of what they can do with a STEM degree.

“Being a woman in computer science, I think it’s easy to feel imposter syndrome, even in the College of Science and Engineering (CSE),” said Rampalli, who received the CSE Merit Scholarship and the Department of Computer Science & Engineering’s Maximillian Lando Scholarship last year. “There are people who are even more underrepresented than me who probably also feel that way, which is kind of disheartening." 

"We wanted to come up with a way that we could reach out to people so that they can have an equal opportunity to get exposure to tech and also see themselves as leaders by seeing women volunteers and guest speakers who are people of color,” she said.

The students originally started the group as a “reboot” of Girls Who Code, a now defunct student group that taught programming and other computer science concepts to female-identifying middle and high school students. But, Rampalli and Pemma soon recognized that women weren’t the only underrepresented group in their field.

So, they decided to expand.

“The two of us saw the way Girls Who Code was run, and we really connected with their mission,” explained Pemma, who serves as the other co-president. “We wanted to see if we could continue that and, hopefully, spread it out to different communities. We also wanted to focus on race and the LGBTQ community, because we know that there are other groups also not represented well in the STEM field, just like women.”

The University of Minnesota students are planning to work with the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul this spring, and they aim to reach more area schools in the future.

“A lot of populations have been historically pushed out of STEM,” Rampalli said. “And this program is kind of righting that wrong. I think our main goal is to give an opportunity to students who don’t have it."

"At the end of the day, they might not even like STEM, but they’ll know they have a place there,” she said.

In the past decade, the percentage of incoming women in the college has grown from about 20 percent to more than 28 percent for fall 2020. But, Rampalli and Pemma said it can always be better. The students are also planning to organize events within CSE and the larger University community to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in STEM.

While the pair said they haven’t faced personal barriers within CSE, Pemma pointed out that in a class of around 120 people, it’s still common to only have 20-30 female-identifying students.

“It’s just kind of blatant, the difference between the female-identifying population and male-identifying population at the University, especially in a field like computer science,” she said.

“And that’s not anyone’s fault, but I think reaching out to [middle and high school] students and sparking an interest will help in kind of leveling out the playing field,” Pemma added.

“I’m a TA myself, and I don’t even see that many female-identifying TAs,” Rampalli added. “It’s little things like that where it’s like, ‘Ok, what’s going on here?’ While change is occurring at a slow level, there’s a lot more that could be done.”

University students interested in getting involved in Code the Gap can visit their Instagram page or fill out the group’s membership form.

Story by Olivia Hultgren