Undergrads Explore Tech Careers by Building Apps to Solve Transportation Challenges

Break Through Tech DC hosts its first summer Guild at UMD
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Trying out a career in tech can be the best way to explore whether it’s the right fit. And this summer, University of Maryland students got that opportunity through the university’s recently announced partnership with Break Through Tech, which aims to propel more students who identify as women and non-binary into tech education—and ultimately tech careers. 

Through the Guild program, 55 students got paid to gain hands-on experience in designing and coding real-world applications. With two weeklong virtual sessions in August, incoming freshmen and rising sophomores at UMD learned about design thinking, Python programming, notable women in tech, educational and career opportunities, and more.“The activities we did with the students often served a similar purpose—putting them in a new situation and giving them a chance to confront an insecurity and make it a strength,” said Mollye Bendell, Guild instructor and lecturer in UMD’s Department of Art. “Students who worried they were ‘bad’ coders learned foundational concepts of coding in a safe place with a lot of peer support.”

To kick off each week, local transportation experts—from the College Park City-University Partnership, UMD’s Department of Transportation Services and the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education—presented challenges related to parking, accessibility and public transportation in College Park. Guild instructors then divided the students into teams and challenged them to design, code and test an app that would solve at least one of these transportation challenges.  

The students weren’t left to develop these solutions on their own, though. They were mentored by volunteers from Accenture, Capital One, M&T Tech and Microsoft who helped guide their ideation and creation processes throughout the week. 

“The instructors, teaching assistants and corporate mentors were so helpful and truly wanted us to succeed,” said Ronnie Cruz, a first-year computer science major.

For Microsoft’s Piali Ghose, volunteering with Guild was an opportunity to “shape the leaders of tomorrow.” She remembers mentors who changed the trajectory of her life and viewed Guild as a chance to do the same. 

“I’ve also found that mentoring can sharpen your emotional radar, as both mentor and mentee assess the emotional needs of the other person and respond,” Ghose said. “Emotional intelligence is a key differentiator for career advancement, and I think that’s something I was able to impart to my group.” 

In the middle of each week, the corporate volunteers participated in a career panel moderated by Caitlin Rudy, career access lead for Break Through Tech DC at UMD. Panelists answered questions on common misconceptions about tech, tech skills that can be applied in fields outside of technology and advice they would give their college selves. 

“I’m at a point in my career where I would like to give back to society and improve the standing of female software engineers in the world,” said Capital One’s Marina Giliver. “I think Break Through Tech and Guild will open horizons for these girls, and they will see that tech is more than just coding.” 

The students spent about 15 hours developing creative solutions to all kinds of transportation issues around College Park—from providing campus directions to listing available parking spots.

“We were really blown away by the presentations at the end of both weeks—it’s incredible what our students were able to accomplish through Guild,” said Kate Atchison, site lead for Break Through Tech DC at UMD and assistant director of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing. “This was a successful first program, and we are excited to continue programming for students this year.”

To further build an inclusive community for UMD students interested in tech careers, Break Through Tech will offer tutoring, mentoring, intro to computing courses and internship opportunities. 

“So much comp sci culture, especially gamer culture, which is kind of my niche, is either irrelevant to or overtly objectifying toward women,” Bendell said. “Guild showed these students that there was a dedicated career path and support system for them if they decide to pursue computer science as a career.” 

As she starts her first year on campus, freshmen connection student Himaja Mallampally intends to remain engaged with Break Through Tech by applying for the Sprinternship® program, which connects students with paid, mini-internship opportunities in tech where students work to find solutions for business challenges while immersed in a host company’s culture. 

“I loved Guild, and I am eager to apply for all the programs that Break Through Tech offers,” Mallampally said. “I met so many great people and mentors—and learned more in one week than I ever thought possible.”

Written by Katie Bemb


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