Teaching Girls How to Program, Pursuing a Greater Mission

 

By Brittany VanBibber

Twitter decided to make its first philanthropic donation to a program committed to teaching a million girls how to code by 2020. To achieve this mission, the program, known as Girls Who Code (GWC), started an annual eight-week summer session in New York City geared towards educating high school girls, whose districts lack computer science education, how to code. The inaugural class graduated this fall, after successfully completing classes in robotics, application building, and web design.

The larger thrust behind the program, however, is convincing these young women that they belong in the world of computer science to begin with.

“One thing I learned from GWC is that scaffolding the young women’s self-efficacy and their belief in themselves to be successful is easier to do in an all-girls setting,” said Leigh Ann Sudol, curriculum coordinator and member of the Board of Directors at GWC. “The guys don’t try to dominate the conversation.”

Though females comprise 57% of university undergraduates, less than 14% walk away with degrees in Computer Science. Founder Reshma Saujani, former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, realized this extreme gap and created GWC to address the problem pre-college level, but with a novel, different approach to teaching and motivating students.

GWC is a non-profit organization that is funded through donations from companies like Twitter, Gmail, and eBay. However, the program also benefits largely from “in-kind” donations. For example, AppNexus, an advertising technology platform company headquartered in Manhattan, donated office space to GWC during the eight weeks that saved the program time and money which would have otherwise been spent on a lease.

Moving forward, GWC plans to create nine more programs, expanding to Sacramento, Detroit, The San Francisco/Bay Area, and Seattle.

“I would like to see GWC become catalyst for dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of organizations like it that adopt their model and open source the idea of jumpstarting the training of an entirely new generation of young people to participate in the 21st century economy, and the globally connected society that technology is enabling, ” said Andrew Rasiej, President of the New York Tech Meetup and Board of Directors for GWC.

The board boasts other big names in the technology world, like Beth Comstock, CMO of General Electric, and Alexis Maybeck, the founder and chief strategy officer at Gilt Groupe. The brain trust at GWC includes Hilary Mason, Chief Scientist at bit.ly, the link shortening service, and Sara Haider, software engineer from Twitter.

These people may come from a variety of backgrounds, but all are giving their time to one cause: helping boost the female interest in programming.

Sudol, who taught Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and has been a teacher for 25 years, noted that there are two reasons why women tend to shy away from Computer Science as a major and as a profession.

First, they think of it as a male-centric field and as one that requires more intelligence than they should have or exhibit. At the start, the girls in the program were asked to give three adjectives to describe a computer programmer. Most came up with some word having to do with smarts, which causes some females to avoid the subject all together.

Second, computing curricula is mostly geared towards masculine concepts. “A lot of curricula focuses on things that are tailored to your geek, your nerd: game design, building video games, masculine robots, fighting robots, things like that,” said Sudol. “The curriculum often reinforces the belief that computing is not for them [girls] when they experience it from the outside. What we did at GWC was we look for things that were gender neutral. You will not find a lot of pink bows and sparkly flowers in our curriculum.”

Beyond targeting the female demographic, GWC also takes into account the necessity of computer science for communities like Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn. During the application process, the girls were ranked on a scale of one to four based on lack of access to computer science, enthusiasm for education, creativity, and other factors.

Once submissions opened, GWC received over 1,000 applications. After narrowing them down based on criteria and location, the New York City area, 52 were left. From that, the 20 girls were chosen.

At the graduation ceremony, which was hosted at the New York Stock Exchange, the girls presented about their progress in the program and even received letters personally addressed from President Obama congratulating them on their efforts.

“What was remarkable about the event is that it was very clear that GWC is not actually about technology. It’s about empowering young women to have the confidence and knowledge that they can achieve anything they want in their lives,” said Rasiej. “It was clear that the experience in participating in GWC was transformative emotionally, psychologically, and mentally for these young women.”

Perhaps the most attractive and useful long-term benefit of the program is the stable, high paying jobs that can be achieved in the computer science field. Unlike a medical or law degree, Computer Science only requires a bachelor’s degree, and has an average starting salary of $60,594, according to CNNMoney.com.

While GWC has this mission to teach females how to code, it may also end up boosting the economy as a whole.

“We’re leaving 50% of the population of out the running to get these programming jobs,” said Evan Korth, Founder of Hack NY, and NYU Computer Science professor. “GWC is addressing that problem. It’s a problem that anyone in the startup community, anyone in the technology community, and anyone in venture capital that relies on the technology community, has seen. We all have an interest in solving this problem.”

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