Twin sisters Mikaila Esuke (center with striped shirt) and Alexis Esuke (left in jean jacket) chat with students during the CompSciConnect summer camp at the University of Maryland in College Park on June 28. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Twin sisters Mikaila Esuke (center with striped shirt) and Alexis Esuke (left in jean jacket) chat with students during the CompSciConnect summer camp at the University of Maryland in College Park on June 28. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Alexis Esuke hung around her mother so much she learned to make soap, body spray and lotions.

Her twin sister, Mikaila, used to spread Lego blocks across the basement floor and built structures within two hours.

The 17-year-old twins’ love of science helped them become co-valedictorians at Bowie High School’s graduation in May, as well as take them to the University of Maryland in College Park this fall. Alexis will study chemical engineering and Mikaila will study mechanical engineering.

“I called my mom and was, like, ‘Mom, guess what? We’re co-valedictorians,” Alexis Esuke recalled after they were called into the principal’s office.

Besides praising their parents who have no backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the teens also credit the CompSciConnect summer camp, a science initiative at the university.

The three-year program seeks to diversify the computer science field by incorporating more minority representation.

The twins enrolled in the program while in elementary school and later became teaching assistants to assist campers who complete various projects tasks such as coding, web development, robotics and cybersecurity.

The Esukes worked with several girls Friday, June 28, teaching them binary code by using colorful beads.

Makaila stood behind Hannah DeHarde, 13, as she played a driving game equipped with a car, cacti, green terrain and a huge cat.

Hannah, a eighth-grader who attends Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington, worked with a partner to produce the game environment with Unity 3D and programmed the objects with a program known as C Sharp.

To ensure students such as Hannah don’t lose their skills, they also meet once a month throughout the school year and conduct two showcases on campus — one in the fall and another in the spring on “Maryland Day.”

“In the first year, we learned intro to binary. I still love binary,”said Hannah, who plans to return next year as a teaching assistant after she completes her third and final year this summer. “It’s good to have the ambassadors because they really, really help [the campers].”

One of those ambassadors, Utsa Santhosh, was among the first campers when the program began seven years ago. Unlike the Esukes, Santhosh’s parents are software engineers.

“I knew growing up that I didn’t want to do what they’re doing, but now I’m doing what they’re doing,” said Santhosh, 18, a sophomore and computer science major.

Santhosh, who is of Indian descent, graduated from high school in Howard County. She enthusiastically tells campers about her experience to encourage other girls that science can influence everyday life.

“They use computer science in recording studios. Half these rappers have apps,” she said. “You can use computer science … and apply it to so many different fields.”

CompSciConnect remains one of several camps through the Maryland Center for Women in Computing (MCWIC) housed at the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, which opened this year.

Jan Plane, director of the center and an undergraduate cybersecurity professor, helped push last year for legislation that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law to expand computer science education. The $5 million initiative requires every high school to offer at least one computer science course by 2021.

Plane said the bill was important because of the lack of computer science classes in the schools and lack of experienced teachers in the field.

“Computer science is one of the fields that has the worst representation as far as gender and race,” she said. “The more we allow them to get exposed to computing, the more likely they will choose to do it. Even if they don’t choose to do it, they will know what it is and mix it in to whatever area they are interested in.”

The Esukes learned more about computer science outside their high school through camp connect and a dual enrollment course at Bowie State University.

Even with the lack of gender and minority representation, it doesn’t bother the twins.

“It’s something that you notice,” Mikaila said of lack of Black women and minorities in the field.

Then Alexis chimed in: “But if you love something, then you just go ahead and do it.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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