University of Calgary: International competition encourages girls to explore possibilities in computer science

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That little spot — a mole or freckle or whatever it is — on your forearm. Was it that dark last month, is the shape changing? What the heck is happening to it?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could grab your phone, focus on that blemish, and learn in just a few seconds whether you need to call the doctor?

That’s the idea behind Skinwise, a downloadable app that can search thousands of skin lesions and conditions and help to determine what’s going on with that little spot.

What’s more amazing and impressive about the possibility of this technology is that the app is the brainchild of two teenage girls.

Working with a mentor and supported by UCalgary’s Faculty of Science, Inga, and Eileen, who are 12 and 13 respectively, developed Skinwise and submitted their work to this year’s Technovation Girls competition, making it as far as the semifinals.

Innovative competition encourages girls to find real-world solutions
Founded in 2006, Technovation supports girls ages eight to 18 in the development of entrepreneurial skills using technology and teamwork. With the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind, teams are challenged to create mobile apps that have the potential to solve real-world problems. This year’s competition engaged 5,500 girls on 1,700 teams representing 61 countries.

Dr. Leanne Wu, PhD, the Calgary chapter ambassador for the past two years, enjoys working with local teams throughout the competition. “Technovation is an important program because it shows young people, especially girls, the kind of impact they can have on the world through programming and technology.”

Beginning early in the year, the girls begin their projects, find mentorship, and build their programs. For Inga and Eileen, who dubbed their team The Upper Moons, the project began by focusing on three areas of skin conditions: melanoma, non-melanoma cancers, and non-cancerous lesions. Working with dermatologists and using medical web resources, they downloaded hundreds of images in all three categories.

Wu, a three time alum of UCalgary (BSc ’03, MSc ’10, PhD ’20), is an assistant professor (teaching) in the Faculty of Science, says there are benefits that deepen the Technovation experience beyond the immediate learning.

Post-secondary student mentors and community partners assist with both the technological and business aspects of the projects. The girls become comfortable working with people in a post-secondary environment and the community, as well as with the concept of the multidisciplinary aspects of their work. During the pandemic, distance connections were fostered, highlighting the idea that sometimes a research partner is found in another part of the world.

The Upper Moons app showed a 70 per cent accuracy in identifying the skin conditions. But that’s not good enough for them. Their goal: 90 per cent, and for that, they would need to increase their sample size.

“The plan was adding at least 4,000 images for each category,” explains Inga. While the teens used a sample size formula for their Technovation project, Eileen says they would try to reach the desired sample size by asking certified dermatologists for credible sources for images.

Side benefits for the participants, community, and the profession
Beyond seeing the results of their research, Eileen and Inga learned a lot — about both their subject matter and the importance of collaboration.

Eileen says she learned about melanoma and identifying it, about sample size calculation, and the importance of protecting skin from UV rays; Inga agrees. “At the start of the competition I knew nothing about melanoma, but now I know how to identify it and how it is different from other skin cancers.”

Both girls have advice for others thinking about taking part in Technovation Girls. “I would say that it will be a fun experience on top of the learning experience, “ says Eileen. “No matter if you don’t know your teammate, you will work with them and probably become friends with them.”

Inga agrees and says, “I didn’t know my teammate at all before this competition and now we are very good friends, so this competition is mostly to have fun and learn about what you picked as the project.”

Wu says programs like Technovation serve as a catalyst for young people — especially young girls interested in STEM — to discover their potential in a growing field of work.

“We want people to start thinking of Calgary as a destination of choice when it comes to technology,” says Wu. “Having a program like Technovation, which are highly inclusive and reach many communities, is an important piece of this.”

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