Women make up nearly 60 percent of the U-S workforce, but Federal Labor Department Statistics show they account for less than a quarter of all software designers. So how do you change that? One national program thinks it has the answer. It’s called Girls Who Code. Rhode Island Public Radio’s education reporter Elisabeth Harrison visited a chapter at Lincoln School in Providence.
Lincoln teacher Doug Alexander gathers more than a dozen middle school girls in blue and green pleated skirts around computers. In teams of four and five, they brainstorm ideas for an app to help the community. One group works on a game about recycling. Another group designs a study tool that would put test prep to a beat.
“So you want it to take words and like make it into a rap?” one student probed her teammate.
“Yeah, it would be like a quiz. Well, first I was thinking you could have different subjects,” the other responded.
The students consider how their app would quiz users to find out what they need to memorize, and then plug the words into a rap or a song. They imagine different types of music the app could offer. Alexander suggests they broaden the idea to include other forms of studying.
“Some people are musical and have that musical brain, but there’s also, like, flash cards or picture association,” said Alexander.
The girls are designing this app in response to challenge from Samsung, one of several companies that has partnered with Girls Who Code to try to make computer programming seem cool to teenage girls. The idea is to reach them when they’re still young, get them excited about coding and give them lots of time to practice before they get to college. It’s also to raise awareness.
"That girls are there and they can code," said 12-year old Amiya Mandapati.
Mandapati is already into coding. She’s been teaching herself some basics through the internet and a summer program. As she looks through dark rimmed glasses at the early stages of her group’s app, she says bluntly she doesn’t care if people think it’s geeky.
“If I worried about that, I promise you, I would not survive on this planet,” said Mandapati.
11-year-old Phoebe Roberts had no experience coding before joining the Girls Who Code club, but now she’s considering a career in computer science. She has to finish the sixth grade first, but she’s drawn to the challenge of programming.
“If something doesn’t work, you have to go through the code and see which thing gets put in. But then when it's all finished you feel really good about yourself because you overcame the problems,” said Roberts.
One of the problems in the tech industry is that many girls are not pursuing degrees in computer science once they get to college. Some experts theorize that part of the problem is they haven’t had as much early practice as their male peers. That’s why Girls Who Code recently expanded from summer workshops to regular afterschool clubs. And that’s why they’re now targeting girls in middle school not just high school.
Roberts hopes that by starting now, she can become a role model.
“Be to other people like: oh yeah, it’s not just for guys, women can also do it,” said Roberts.
Another obstacle to luring more women into computer science is the old stereotype of the computer nerd. Roshni Mirchandani runs a Girls Who Code club at Highlander Charter School. She used to introduce coding in a coed class with 8th graders, but the girls didn’t really get into it.
“They always had crushes on each other, so the girls were always overshadowed by the boys, and I want to impress that guy, I want to impress that guy,” said Mirchandani.
Mirchandani describes middle school as a crucial time when kids develop an identity as students. She finds the all-girls environment of the Girls Who Code club seems to make a difference.
“It’s a lot more open and natural, and the girls can ask questions and be a lot more open with each other and with their teachers.”
At Lincoln School, its normal to see a classroom full of girls because this is an all-girls school. But teacher Doug Alexander says Girls Who Code does a good job engaging students while they learn the algorithms and logical thinking of coding.
“They explicitly say they want to make it fun. And I think what that is saying in a less obvious way is that coding in the past has not been taught in a way that was meant to be extremely engaging or entertaining,” said Alexander. “What they have done quite consciously is incorporate a lot of really engaging activities and fun, even down to the lectures, the PowerPoint slides they give us are funny.”
Students seem to like the teamwork the club uses. That’s designed specifically to appeal to girls and to mimic the way many professional software developers do their jobs.
12-year-old Sasha Floru doesn’t see anything uncool about it.
“I don’t know, I just like everything about it. It’s really important to our future now, so I don’t see it as a not cool thing. I see it as an amazing thing,” said Floru.
Floru’s group took third place in the Samsung Challenge, with their rap music study app. This is the first year that Girls Who Code clubs have formed across the country, so the impact is still unknown. But instructor Doug Alexander says the goal should be to move beyond the point where girls coding is cool, or even amazing. He says it should be so normal, you hardly even notice.
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