Collage by Alex Hanson featuring an image courtesy of CoderGals
When I was in 6th grade, my mom found a drag-and-drop coding program called Alice. I started using it because it seemed fun. I was obsessed with iMovie at the time, so using code to make little animations with animals appealed to me. I played around with it for a few months, then I forgot about it. Two years later, I discovered Codecademy. I started to learn how to make a website, which was so cool. It was amazing to be able to create something that could be immediately available for anyone to see. However, I had the same problems during both of these experiences. I knew boys involved in robotics, but none of my female friends were interested in coding. I also didn’t have a role model or a mentor.
The root cause of this is visibility. Exceptional women in STEM exist. They’re not unicorns. They’re just rarely highlighted by mainstream media. When I was younger, I loved J.K. Rowling because I loved the Harry Potter series— I even dressed up as her for a historical figure fair. I had never heard of what I consider real wizardry, coding, in any books. I also looked up to Emma Watson and Miley Cyrus because those were the role models promoted to me. The icons that girls are presented with are generally celebrities, musicians, or actresses— not scientists or successful businesswomen. The funny thing is that these are all creators, but we are told to look up to creators of content rather than creators of innovations. This isn’t inherently bad, but if girls don’t have STEM role models to look up to, how will they become involved? It’s hard to be what you can’t see.
My younger sister, who was in elementary school at the time, was one of two girls in an after school math club. I had known that this situation was typical, but I had never recognized it as an issue until it happened to my sister. I had never taken any STEM extracurriculars when I was younger, and had cycled through the typical after school activities of gymnastics, dance, soccer, art, and Girl Scouts. Nothing had stuck.
The thing was, I liked math and science. I just only did them in school. Why was that? Why are young girls encouraged to do art, sports, and dance, but not STEM? I started to research this issue. Although there are many middle and high school girls’ coding programs, I could not find an elementary school girls’ coding program. This made no sense to me. Girls form an opinion about math and science in elementary school, yet no organization that I could find was actively attempting to break stereotypes and erase the stigma associated with girls in STEM.
I decided to do something about this, so I started an after school program at my school called CoderGals. In the program, high school girls teach elementary school girls how to code. The high school girls serve as local role models for the younger girls. The younger students can visualize themselves coding in high school, and may want to take higher level math and science classes because they have relatable mentors who do. They’ll also never be the only girl in the club, because it’s for girls only.
In CoderGals, we do projects that demonstrate that computer science is fun, creative, and collaborative. For example, we might make animations of dancing monkeys one week, and then a maze game the next. Girls create projects using Made With Code, Scratch, CodeMonkey, and more. Scratch is the girls’ favorite website because it gives them the ability to make anything they want. After I introduce a project, the girls can customize it. We also use design notebooks to show that coding actually does involve planning and artistic skills.
One important aspect of CoderGals is that it is after school. I think that every school should offer a computer science class, however, a club has a totally different feel from a class. There are no grades, which means that there’s no pressure. Creativity gets to be the focus. The primary goal isn’t to advance girls’ programming skills, but is to make coding fun and keep girls interested, so they will stick with it.
Helping a girl find an error in her code and seeing her satisfaction at completing a challenge is such a good feeling. However, the biggest challenge I have faced so far is recruiting high school girls to help teach and mentor. A lot of high school girls don’t feel like they can pick up coding and that it is too late to learn. That’s wrong for two reasons: 1. If a third grade girl can easily learn it, you definitely can too! 2. It’s never too late to learn!
What I discovered by developing CoderGals was that this model works. The girls are so enthusiastic, and love telling me about what they created at home. I am starting a middle school club because the recently graduated 5th graders told me that they wanted to continue participating in CoderGals. My school teaches computer science as a weekly elective for elementary school kids, and teachers told me that girls who participated in CoderGals were confident leaders in the classroom. I took a poll at the end of the first session. “Who liked to code at the beginning of CoderGals?” Two girls raised their hands. “Who likes to code now?” Every single girl raised her hand. One of the girls asked, “What if you LOVE to code?” and every girl still raised her hand.
In CoderGals, the mentors are able to show girls that coding is just another medium for self-expression and can be used for any purpose. Computer science isn’t limited to the field itself. If girls know that code is a tool, they won’t just be a consumer of technology, but will create it.
If you want to start a CoderGals chapter, learn more here. (www.codergals.org)