Calling all girl computer coders: the world needs you

Camp for high school girls aims to combat stereotypes about coding and encourage more to study computer science. Those who try it find it empowering

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 10:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 10:18pm

The group of high school girls sat before a potted plant with wires running down the sides. India Bhalla-Ladd, 15, fiddled with a button on the broadboard, a pegboard for electronic devices. With each press, a different plant type appeared on a black-and-white screen - veggie, flower, and the one she eventually landed on: succulent.

That morning, in a classroom at Georgetown University in Washington, the toggling device for their project was acting up. They had to troubleshoot a plant.

"We find if you're missing a semicolon or a comma, the whole thing won't work," says India, a junior at National Cathedral School, referring to the code for their plant-managing device, Plantech.

The concept is simple, and genius, really: if your plant needs watering, Plantech will alert you. It works the same way for temperature and sunlight. An LED indicator flashes on, telling you that the plant requires your attention. Eventually, the girls hope it will make watering house plants as simple as sending a text message from work.

"Every person has, at one point, forgotten to water their plant," says 17-year-old Sara Berrios, a senior at Westfield High School in Chantilly, in the US state of Virginia.

The group's idea sprouted from a seven-week Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Programme, a camp that aims to combat stereotypes about computer coders and to encourage high school girls to pursue computer science education. During July and August, about 60 students attended the camp, sponsored by BSA (the Software Alliance), Lockheed Martin and the university. Girls Who Code, a not-for-profit scheme, seeks to increase the number of women in technology.

In 1984, women represented 37 per cent of computer science graduates, according to Girls Who Code. Today, women make up just 18 per cent of those graduates.

By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings, but US universities are only expected to produce enough qualified graduates to fill 29 per cent of those openings, according to the US Department of Labour. Girls Who Code aims to provide computer science education to at least a million young women by 2020. Instead of lazing away the summer with friends or on the couch in front of a TV, dozens of girls gathered at Georgetown with a shared goal: solve an everyday problem with coding.

The girls used computing languages to produce a set of actions that work in concert, and a glimpse into Tom Gutnick's classroom on a sunny August morning provided strong examples of what that can create. "I don't know how this classroom strikes you," he says. "It's chaotic. You look around and you see all the great learning going around, and that's what it's all about."

While button pressing occurred at one end of the classroom - part of a video game in which a kayak navigates streams while cleaning up oil spills - another group worked out kinks on a website that matches people to their ideal pet and guides them to a shelter where they can find it.

Taiylor Waysome, 17, and Devin McCoy, 15, were tinkering with a project catered to another demographic. Their website, Curl Kind, aims to help their curly-haired cohorts take care of sometimes hard-to-manage locks. It was inspired by Waysome's own experiences "messing up" her hair, she says.

If you don't see someone who looks like you, you tend to think it's wrong
Devin McCoy, 15

"I don't want other people to have to go through that," says Waysome, a student at Hylton High School in Prince William County, Virginia.

But their message goes beyond hair, extending deep into the roots of human relationships, the girls say.

"If you don't see someone who looks like you, you tend to think it's wrong," says McCoy, a student at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Maryland.

"It's the same thing with hair. We want people to grow up feeling good about themselves and their hair."

The girls have a variety of reasons for pursuing coding. Some say it's the job prospects, for others it's a love of video games and technology. But many say coding is simply empowering.

Victoria Espinel, the chief executive of sponsor BSA, says the mission struck a personal chord with her as the head of a software advocacy group. The world needs more female coders, Espinel says.

"I think if there's a significant portion of the population that is discouraged from going into an industry, then, by definition, you are losing a significant chunk of talent," Espinel says.

"There's a huge population of smart people that are not going into coding, and we need to have them going into coding." The Washington Post