You code, girl!

Irvine teen launches nonprofit to teach middle school girls STEM skills

by TOMOYA SHIMURA

Avika Patel has been in love with computer coding ever since her engineer father encouraged her to study it in middle school.

“Technology surrounds us in everything from the morning alarm to an evening car ride,” she said. “If you can create technology, then you can essentially change the world.”

Now, the 17-year-old junior at Woodbridge High School is inspiring younger girls to follow her path, and close the gender gap in technology.

Patel founded a nonprofit organization called #innovate that helps girls learn computer science skills and solve civic issues.

She recently organized a seven- week workshop for middle school girls to create games, design websites and develop apps. Participants visited Google’s Irvine office to see what it’s like to work at the tech giant.

“Girls have such untapped potential in computer science,” Patel said. “Computing is where the future is, and I believe girls should be a driving force in that future as well.”

Role model for girls

Patel — who has written two books — has been named among Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24, which
is composed of young people from around the world who are breaking barriers in STEM and arts fields. She also received an award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

“Avika has really strong leadership skills, and she’s so well-spoken that people pay attention to her,” said Kim Hermans, a computer science teacher at Woodbridge.

Girls avoid coding and other STEM fields partly because they aren’t exposed to them early in life. That’s why Patel’s efforts are critical, Hermans said.

“Girls will look up to her and say, ‘This is a cool girl and she’s in computer science, so it’s not just for boys and a geeky, nerdy thing,’” Hermans said. “I think Avika makes an amazing role model for these young girls.”

Irvine education

Patel credits Irvine’s education and academic environment for her achievements.

Last year, she helped Irvine high schools’ CubeSat program launch two satellites into space, programming the satellites to take and transmit photos of a giant cloud of dust and gas in space.

She said she has learned more about computer science through courses at Woodbridge than anywhere else. And having UCI nearby allows her to collaborate with college students on her projects.

“One of the biggest benefits of Irvine is you have a large group of friends who are interested in building a successful career for themselves,” Patel said. “We go to computer competitions together. It expands our knowledge collectively, and it encourages us to try more.”

“It’s something only Irvine could provide.”