Empowering young people on International Youth Day

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[email protected] students presenting their projects © Murielle Gerber / EPFL 20
[email protected] students presenting their projects © Murielle Gerber / EPFL 2022

Held every year on August 12, International Youth Day provides a platform for young people to focus on how they will develop innovative and entrepreneurial solutions for the future. Two EPFL summer programs are helping to do this in the field of computer and communication science.

The idea for International Youth Day came out of the first session of the World Youth Forum of the United Nations System in 1991. Thirty years on and it is recognized as a theme more important than ever.

"Young people are on the frontlines of the struggle to build a better future for all. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire need for the kind of transformational change they seek - and young people must be full partners in that effort," said António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations.

Two summer programs from the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC School) highlight how EPFL is helping to empower future generations with the computer science skills necessary in our high-tech world.

[email protected]

Open to Bachelor and Master students in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Telecommunications, or Electrical Engineering, with the opportunity to dive into cutting-edge research projects, [email protected] offers 3-month summer fellowships to international students. Participants get the chance to learn new skills and to gain hands-on experience in their chosen field while collaborating with leading senior scientists.

Started a decade ago with around 20 participants, the program now receives around 5000 applications a year, accepting about 100 students.

"There are two sides to the program. We make ourselves visible to the students who participate and they often become ambassadors; we have seen a domino effect where there can be streams of PhD applications from institutions where we have had summer interns. On the other hand, it’s also important that we have the opportunity to screen future PhD students and we find that many of the best return to EPFL after this program to do their doctorate," said Professor Paolo Ienne, Head of the Processor Architecture Laboratory and Director of [email protected]

In addition, Ienne has worked hard to ensure the diversity of the program which this year is completely gender balanced, sometimes a difficult ask in computer science, and for the first time has several students from sub-Saharan Africa participating.

"We cover the students’ travel and living expenses and I like to think of it as social justice in the sense that there is no way that a typical student from developing country has the money to live in Switzerland for three months. We don’t only want to give the opportunity to spend a summer at EPFL to those who are rich enough. I like to think that we can look for talent everywhere, irrespective of the wealth of the family or wealth of the country. In the end we need the best talent to do the best research. It’s great that a few years ago, the School of Engineering has introduced a similar Excellence in Engineering Program. It’s a win-win situation," he added.

You too can create your app

Computer science is still often accused of having a ’ women problem ’. Another EPFL summer program is trying to help change this, encouraging teenage girls to become interested in the field and change their perspectives that mathematics and computer science are not just for boys.

Two week-long workshops host local girls aged between 13-15 where they learn to develop and program an application for a mobile phone. " You too can create your app " has a specific objective to give girls confidence and hands on experience with programming.

"Girls are often anxious to try out new things and are less often encouraged than boys to give new things a go. We came up with the idea of focusing on social media to attract girls. By the end of the workshop, they can send messages to each other with their own apps. It gives the girls insight into computer science, confidence in themselves, and they have fun," said computer scientist Barbara Jobstmann, who runs the program.

Almost 350 young women have participated in the course since it began in 2014, with some going on to study computer science at EPFL. Farnaz Moser-Boroumand, Director of Science Outreach at EPFL says one key challenge in attracting girls to STEM is the lack of everyday role models showing them these fields are for everyone.

"Technical toys and computer games are generally given to boys rather than girls, so girls often already have a lack of experience with technical things. The stereotype that these fields are for men, rather than women, still permeate society and it doesn’t help give girls confidence in their capabilities. EPFL has a wide program for girls of different ages from 7 to 16 to encourage them to become engaged in science and technology. The lack of confidence is particularly critical around the ages of 13-15, which is where this course is targeted, and we are trying to show them that they can choose these options in their school curriculum after this summer program," she said.

"Often at the beginning of the course there are some girls that don’t want to participate but then they start working and enjoy it, and all of them create amazing apps. What’s also great is that some of the participants from earlier courses have become teachers in our workshops, making them great role models for new participants. It’s wonderful!" Jobstmann concluded.

A second EPFL computer science course aimed at empowering teenagers held over summer is Nature in Code.