Chandrashekar spearheads successful computer science outreach initiative


Photo courtesy of Pooja Chandrashekar.

Junior Pooja Chandrashekar (right) stands with Courtney Wallace, Creative Technologist at iStrategyLabs (left), who spoke at the 2014 Awards Gala. Chandrashekar founded ProjectCSGIRLS to encourage middle school girls to explore their interests in computer science and technology.

Ellen Kan, Managing Editor

On March 30, approximately 130 people gathered at the George Mason University (GMU) Engineering Building for the ProjectCSGIRLS inaugural awards gala. The ceremony honored over 50 middle school girls who participated in the ProjectCSGIRLS competition, which challenges contestants to incorporate computer science into developing creative solutions global for issues, under the categories of Global Health, A Safer World and Intelligent Technology. Participants were required to submit both written and video components.

At the awards gala, students had the opportunity to meet and listen to keynote speeches from professionals in industry and academia. Several Jefferson clubs were also present at the event, including representatives from Bioinformatics Society, Forensic Science Society and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

While three of the teams went home with the grand prize, no one was prouder than junior Pooja Chandrashekar, the founder of ProjectCSGIRLS.

For Chandrashekar, ProjectCSGIRLS is a way to share her passions for computer science and technology with younger girls, many of whom may be turned away by the stereotypes surrounding the field. Chandrashekar herself found inspiration through participating in the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing contest, for which she was named as one of 35 national winners.

“I wanted to provide middle school girls in my community with a platform like NCWIT where they could really build on their passions and get the chance to develop innovative solutions to real-world social problems using computer science and technology,” Chandrashekar, who founded ProjectCSGIRLS after her freshman year, said.

While she started the initiative individually, Chandrashekar communicated with and received support from organizations such as GMU, iStrategy Labs and the Thiel Fellowship to fulfill her goals.

For ProjectCSGIRLS’s first year, Chandrashekar focused on reaching out to female students in the Virginia, Maryland and D.C. area. She views the competition’s first year as a tremendous success, as she was able to communicate with almost every middle school in the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system.

Chandrashekar has high hopes for the future of ProjectCSGIRLS, which she would like to officially register as a non-profit corporation. She also encourages Jefferson students who are interested in assisting with summer workshops and expanding the program to contact her. With some help, she hopes that ProjectCSGIRLS will eventually be able to impact not just students in the local area, but also those across the nation.

“I would love to coordinate with multiple school districts in several states to bring ProjectCSGIRLS to their communities as well,” Chandrashekar said. “In addition to our trademark ProjectCSGIRLS competition, I will be organizing workshops and training sessions over the summer and the next school year to motivate middle school girls in computer science and technology.”

At the awards gala, Chandrashekar was touched by the reactions of several parents, who thanked her for starting the initiative and serving as a role model for their daughters. Chandrashekar has had her fair share of trials and tribulations in pursuing computer science and technology, and the founding of ProjectCSGIRLS is just the first leg of her personally-invested journey to open up these fields to younger girls.

“It was fantastic to see that I had inspired so many girls and changed at least a small part of their lives,” Chandrashekar said.