The Power of Teaching Girls to Code

A growing summer camp is giving young women the skills they need to get high-paying tech jobs, before they've even graduated from high school.

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Girls Who Code

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science. But American universities are on track to produce qualified graduates to fill less than a third of those jobs, and only a tiny number of the graduates we do produce are women. According to U.S. Department of Commerce, just one out of every seven engineers are in this country are women.

Girls Who Code wants to change that. The organization just concluded its second summer of computer science immersion camps for high school girls. This year, the nonprofit went national, expanding from one camp in New York to programs in Detroit, San Francisco, and San Jose. Campers have built apps to help the disabled navigate New York's subways, Twitter-based apps for book clubs, and complex video games; alumnae have returned to their schools to start pilot Girls Who Code Clubs and lobby for more computer science courses, since many high schools don’t offer them. (To meet the overwhelming demand and reach more girls with their programs, especially in under-served communities, the organization will be launching a new Girls Who Code Clubs effort this fall.)

In Detroit, Girls Who Code hosted 20 girls for eight weeks in partnership with GE and the Knight Foundation, working with 50-plus mentors and leaders at GE’s Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center. Most of the mentors were women. "If you look at who the girls are exposed to—half of our most senior IT leaders are women—they were literally seeing themselves there," says Kim Bankston, who led the program for GE. "The mentors the girls had were women with 10 to 20 years of experience in IT. They could tell their story of growing up in Michigan and going into this field."

Bankston is frank: we need more talent, and the girls of this generation need to be a part of it. Showing them that information technology is a cool field—and one not to fear—is key, especially since technology figures significantly into just about every industry.

In Detroit, the campers went to the office every day, working on laptops and practicing basic coding lessons. They also spent time in GE’s aviation center, research facilities, and robot garage, to learn about automation and app design, and took field trips to Google, GM, and the Henry Ford Museum.

Their final projects spotlight the innovative ways in which the girls learned to break down and solve problems using technology: one group created an app called Sisters Understanding Math and Science (SUMS), which included inspiring quotes, examples of female leaders, and games. Another created a website called Define Green , that allowed users to calculate their carbon footprints and included strategies for reducing them.

Audrey Smith, a 16-year-old student from Roseville, Michigan, co-designed a website called Find Your College, which helps high school students with the college application process. "I’d been thinking about colleges—I didn’t know the ones that would be the best ones for me, and I knew that other people would definitely be having the same problem," she says. Through the project, which tells users about different types of schools (liberal arts colleges vs. technical schools, for example) and the breakdown of what each has to offer (male/female student ratio, top majors), she zeroed in on her own preferences.

Audrey Smith presenting her final project, 'Find Your College.' Image courtesy Girls Who Code.

"Something I want in a college is to feel at home—where it’s smaller, where computer science is important, and where people have those same interests," she says. During the summer, the thrill of having a peer group (girls she now describes as "sisters") excited about coding and computers, she says, opened up her world. The skills she picked up have already proved useful; she’s about to design a jobs-related website for her father.

Audrey’s favorite field trip was the one to GM. "I could picture myself working there," she says. "They told us about working with the cars, the coding behind it. Basically, cars—they’re computers. There’s so much coding behind it. Most people wouldn’t think that."

The opening of all these doors, she said, was life-changing: "I loved the feeling of the future."

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