Fifth annual Girls Programming League Challenge offers new coding opportunities


Sabrina Zhu

Panelists Aleks Goeva, Johanna Kim, Anita Chetty and Dr. Natalie Pageler, all female industry professionals working in the fields of medicine or computer science, speak to Girls Programming League Challenge participants. The panelists discussed their experiences as women in the fields of computer science and medicine.

by Grant Yang and Vivian Chen

Competing against the clock, upper and middle school students from across the nation participated in  the Girls Programming League (GPL) Challenge, solving coding problems and hearing from a panel of expert speakers on Sept. 25. 

Now the fifth annual GPL Challenge since its inception in 2018, this year’s event took place virtually on Zoom to over 100 female-identifying student attendees. The event was organized and prepared by the Programming Club.

With two separate divisions to accommodate both novice and advanced programmers, the event started with a two-hour coding competition, where students competed for top monetary awards. Held on the CodeForces contest platform, the competition required coders to apply their knowledge of algorithms to efficiently solve word problems and write programs that respond with the correct output given certain inputs. 

“My favorite part was actually after the competition was over,” Tanisha Singh (11), who competed in the advanced division, said. “Because then, my friends and I were able to relax without any of the time pressure, discuss solutions or what we had overlooked in the competition, or potential practice strategies for the future.”

After the main event, competitors listened to a keynote speech from Dr. Maria Nattestad, a senior software engineer at Google Health, about her journey from studying biology and medicine to computer science and her experience as a woman in the field of bioinformatics, building algorithms and tools for processing genomic data.

“The keynote speaker changed my view on computer science,” said Tiffany Zhu (9) after listening to Dr. Nattestad speak about her career path in biology and computer science. “I thought that was inspiring, that even though it took her a while to find it, in the end, she got to find her passion.”

After the contest, my friends and I were able to discuss solutions and potential practice strategies for the future

— Tanisha Singh, GPL Challenge Participant

In the afternoon, students listened to Dr. Natalie Pageler, Clinical Professor of Pediatric Critical Care at Stanford University; Aleks Goeva, a researcher at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University; Johanna Kim, Executive Director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine and Imaging at Stanford University; and Harker’s own Anita Chetty discuss women in the field of computer science and medicine and the technical details of their respective fields. 

“It was really fun,” said Aashvi Ravi (9). “Each of them spoke about their experiences and everyone got to ask some questions.”

Following the one-hour panel discussion, the Programming Club officers led the awards ceremony, congratulating the top teams and awarding monetary prizes to the top four teams from each division.

Upper school computer science teacher Anu Datar, co-advisor to Programming Club, first became involved in the competition three years ago when she saw the event’s success.

I thought it was important to encourage girls, especially young girls [and] high school students, to try and explore what they could do with computer science,” she said. “I enjoy everything that they do, including the contest and the panel speakers.”

Harker Programming Club co-president Sally Zhu (12) manages contest submissions during the Girls Programming League (GPL) challenge. Programming Club officers organized GPL by writing various coding problems, inviting speakers and advertising. (Sabrina Zhu)