As a sophomore at the Episcopal School of Dallas, Natalie Monger was the one girl in a computer science class of about 20 boys.
Now, the 2015 graduate is a computer science and business major, with minor in dance, at the University of Southern California, and she is spending the summer developing software for Google.
“I think that’s [ESD is] where it started — that’s when she realized that’s what she wanted to do,” her mother, Michelle, said. “Natalie was particularly impressed with the female professors who spoke at the conference and encouraged young women to pursue studies in computer science.”
The 19-year-old’s skills grabbed Google’s attention when she sent the company an application for a summer coding project for Liquid Galaxy, which creates interactive environments using Google Earth technology.
Monger and other students that Google hired will have until September to complete the independent projects they proposed. If her project is successful, Google will buy it and adopt the program.
“It will be credited towards me, and maybe they’ll offer me another project next summer,” Monger said.
The program allows the viewer to fly visually over panoramas of Earth. Monger is adding a personal twist for her project.
“It’s made for the elderly, which I think is really cool because they don’t have a lot of technologies geared towards them.”
She’s working with senior living homes to provide nostalgic experiences for the elderly to fly back in time.
“It will fly you to all your old memories — that’s where I was married, that’s where I went to elementary school,” Monger said. All the viewer has to do is squeeze a teddy bear.
The teddy bear is, of course, not just any teddy bear; it has been implanted with a chip that Monger coded to connect with a big screen, where the images display. “When you squeeze the teddy bear in real life, that sends a signal to the code,” she said.
Having a tactile connection with a comfortable childhood object anchors the virtual experience and creates a real one for viewers who often do not have the mobility to travel physically or relive old memories in concrete ways.
“I definitely want to develop software, but I’m also a dancer, so I also want to bring dance into technology,” Monger said.
Google’s research into the wide racial and gender gaps in computer science is driving its efforts to increase representation of women and minorities in the field.
“There’s still definitely a gender gap in technology. [But] my college classes are 40 percent women, so that’s cool.”A 2016 report conducted by Google and Gallup, “Diversity Gaps in Computer Science: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks and Hispanics,” focuses on K-12 schools — where female and minority students often don’t have as much access or encouragement to pursue tech and computer sciences — to explain the disparity.
“One day, she asked if she could use the bunch of bananas in the fruit basket in our kitchen for a project,” Michelle said. “She wrote code in Java, and when she asked me to come see what she made, I saw that the bananas were connected by wires to her computer, and she was playing simple songs from the computer using the bananas as a keyboard.”
She enjoyed computer science, and proved good at it. “So, I started taking more and more classes – AP computer science, robotics class,” Monger said.
Eric Boberg, dean of students for the middle school, said girls at ESD have tended towards the fine arts and life sciences, while boys have dominated the computer and quantitative sciences.
“Getting girls involved is definitely a priority of ours, just like we try to get boys into the fine arts,” Boberg said.
“We have a very robust program,” which includes computer science and robotics courses, Lego competitions, and coding activities, he said. “Our goal is to get as many kids as possible experiencing computational thinking skills, even if it’s not programming.
The school looks for ways to make programming more relevant. “Computers are used to solve problems,” Boberg said, “whether it’s doing something with the environment or doing something with a team.”
Students are responding. ESD middle and upper schools have more high attaining girls such as Monger.
“There’s still definitely a gender gap in technology,” Monger said. “My college classes are 40 percent women, so that’s cool. That’s one of the reasons I chose USC.”