Sterling Heights

A champion of change: Q&A with Christina Li

When Christina Li was only 15 years old she didn't just notice the lack of young women in her favorite field of computer science, she decided to do something about it. Li established a five-day camp, called Hello World!, for girls to learn how to code robots, apps, websites and games. The initiative saw her recognized by the White House as a "champion of change" and while she's moved on to her studies at Stanford University, she hasn't forgotten her formative years in Sterling Heights. 

Christina Li shows off a flower maze she designed and machined using computer numerical control of a 3D printer.

Q: What inspired you to start up Hello World! when you were a sophomore at Stevenson High School?

A: I had attended Stanford Summer College classes and went to a couple hack-a-thons when the existence of the gender gap became very obvious to me. I wanted to do something to fix that.

Q: Growing up in Sterling Heights, what kind of STEM opportunities were around?

A: There are actually a lot of STEM opportunities in Michigan, more than other states. I didn't realize that until I came out to California for school, but we are extremely privileged to be surrounded by car culture, a focus in manufacturing and trade skills (CTE), and FIRST robotic teams in South East Michigan.

Q: You were part of the ThunderChickens robotics team here, what experience did that give you?

A: It got me used to working with my hands and thinking like an engineer. It put me in the mindset that if you have a problem, you should think of different ways to solve it. For example, if you've only written code, it's important to understand a little bit about mechanical design and engineering so you can approach problems from a different perspective. 

Q: What's the coolest project you've worked on so far?

A; I've been lucky to be involved in so many cool projects. The Mars Rover team at Stanford. The vehicle engineering automation team at SpaceX. But I think my coolest project is the 2020 Stanford solar car, Black Mamba. For this car, I designed parts of the front suspension and steered fairings system, coded some firmware for telemetry, and I was also one of the drivers for the car. Being able to drive something my team and I built with our own hands is an unforgettable experience.

Christina Li at the SpaceX headquarters where she will soon begin working.Q: What do girls and women in STEM education and workplaces need, what do you hope to see in your field in the future?

A: I think women in STEM education need a level playing field. We've come such a long way in society since I started Hello World!, and now, gender representation in tech is heavily discussed. However, the problem of intersectionality in class and race still exist: if you come from a low-income background, you're less likely to have access to computers, which obviously plays a big role in whether people choose to go into this field. Having programs like FIRST robotics introduces kids early to how fun engineering can be, which is why I hope programs like those continue to be around in the future. 

Q: What's next for you?

A: I've just signed on to a full time offer at SpaceX for software engineering, and this path all started with my incredible experience on the ThunderChickens robotics team back in high school.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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