Informatics students have long been the program’s biggest advocates. Led by the Informatics Undergraduate Association (IUGA) and Women in Informatics (Winfo) student groups, they’re putting their energy into “High School to iSchool,” an effort to increase the number of freshman-direct applicants and ensure those applicants come from diverse backgrounds.
Senior Informatics major Aaron Zhao is among those leading the effort as IUGA’s diversity director for 2020-21. Zhao said he didn’t know about Informatics when he was in high school, but wishes he had. Students admitted as freshmen have a built-in community from Day 1 at the UW Information School, and they have more time to make the most out of their experience in Informatics.
“I feel like it’s better to know what you want to do before you get into college, and it helps you get into this competitive program as well,” he said.
At High School to iSchool events, teenagers get exposure to what Informatics is about – designing and developing technology to improve how organizations work and how people live. They also make connections with current Informatics students who can serve as mentors when they apply. Zhao takes pride that one student he met last year stayed in touch and was accepted to the UW as an Informatics major.
“Their accomplishment makes you feel really fulfilled. You know that they want to do this and they’re capable of doing it,” Zhao said. “You just support them to help them present themselves to the admissions committee. That feeling is really great – not going to lie.”
High School to iSchool has grown to three events this academic year:
The “FearLess, Tech More” innovation challenge, organized by IUGA and Winfo: A new event for 2020, this extended online hackathon invites high school students from all backgrounds to try their hand at user-experience design in technology. The event, which begins Oct. 5, is spread across two weeks to allow students to work at their own pace.
The iTech Inclusion Symposium, organized by Winfo and the iSchool Doctoral Student Association: This half-day event brings high school students from all backgrounds to the UW campus for fun, hands-on experiences with technology. Last year’s event brought dozens of Seattle-area high school teens to the HUB to learn from faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. This year’s event is planned for winter quarter and may need to move online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hack for Social Good, organized by IUGA and the Dream Project: This hackathon in spring quarter brings local high school students to campus (or online if necessary) to design creative solutions to technology problems. High schoolers get the chance to work in small groups, mentored by current Informatics students.
While all students are welcome at the events, Informatics students are recruiting to further their goal of bringing more diversity to the program.
“We went in with the mindset that we were aiming for underrepresented minoritized students, and we blatantly said that. I think that’s an important step; it’s important to say what your goal is,” said Eva Perez, ’20, who was involved in the first High School to iSchool events. “Through that, we were able to create connections with different high schools that have more students of color.”
As Winfo’s director of community efforts, sophomore Rachel Kinkley gets her fellow students involved in the events. Kinkley counts herself lucky that she has an older brother who learned about Informatics as a UW student and urged her to apply for freshman admission. She said it was a “huge blessing” to have a community waiting for her at the iSchool and not have to worry about fulfilling prerequisites.
Through the High School to iSchool program, she’s helping raise Informatics’ profile among high schoolers who don’t have the same exposure and showing them what’s special about the major.
“In these hackathon settings, they get to think about it and collaborate with their peers and think of a solution that could help solve a real-world problem,” Kinkley said. “They’re able to work toward that solution and create a prototype and see, ‘Wow, I can have this real-world impact, and right now I may not have the skills to do that, but if I pursue Informatics, I can get the skills I need to leave my mark and to help someone else.’”
High School to iSchool began in the 2018-19 academic year when Katie Goulding, ’19, teamed with iSchool Diversity Programs Advisor Cynthia del Rosario to apply for a grant from the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. The grant funded the first Hack for Social Good.
Junior Informatics major Harkiran Saluja was admitted to the program as a freshman and volunteered at the initial hackathon. Now, as Winfo’s director of diversity, she’s among those leading the efforts to expose high schoolers to the Informatics program.
“We don’t expect every kid that comes through High School to iSchool to apply to Informatics,” she said. “Even if you help a couple of kids, that’s still something meaningful. You change their life.”
Pictured at top: A UW student helps a high school student experiment in VR at the 2019-20 iTech Inclusion Symposium at the HUB on the UW campus.