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When the Tennessee Code Academy started coding camps for kids in the summer of 2013, its organizers noticed something missing: girls. Young women weren’t signing up for the weeklong code camps despite generally high enrollment. “So we sat down with the team to figure out how to get girls to sign up,” explained Sammy Lowdermilk, who is now the director of the growing spin-off project, 100 Girls of Code.
Sammy and other partners, including several female programmers, decided to establish a one day workshop specifically for girls between the ages of 12 and 18. In the summer of 2014, they launched these workshops, at no charge to students, with the support of volunteer instructors and organizers in 12 different locations throughout Tennessee. Their goal was to reach 100 girls. Over 200 girls signed up for the workshops, and shortly thereafter the organizers were contacted by interested groups outside of the state. Could they offer these workshops in South Carolina? In Kentucky?
Since last summer, over 600 girls have attended free 100 Girls of Code workshops in nine different states and new chapters of the program continue to open across the country. Typically, up to 25 girls attend each six hour workshop, entirely led and supported by female programmers and volunteers. “We want to create an environment where the girl from the beginning is comfortable being herself without any distractions, any fear or intimidation,” explained Sara Kennedy, a front end web developer who leads the Columbia, South Carolina chapter.
The workshop begins with a short history lesson in computer science that specifically highlights women who were integral in the field early on, such as Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace. Instructors also discuss current female leaders in technology: Marissa Mayer and Megan Smith, for instance. The students then get to coding. They learn some introductory HTML and CSS, and even dabble in programming languages, primarily through Scratch, an MIT-built tool that facilitates learning computer programming through creating interactive stories, games and animations. By the end of the workshop, the girls have created basic websites that tell stories about their day spent as a “girl of code.”
While the workshops only introduce computer programming skills, the hope is these few hours have a lasting impact. “At minimum, I hope they can walk away and feel proud about what women can do in technology,” said Sara. And at best, 100 Girls of Code alumni will seek out additional opportunities to build on their skills and eventually pursue a college education and a career in computer programming. They’ve already had a few girls come back to help assist in additional workshops.
100 Girls of Code is starting to explore how they can provide their alumni with additional coding education opportunities. In most locales, computer science is not offered in public schools. The organization is planning to establish more advanced workshops in some chapters and hopes they can eventually create a scholarship fund for girls graduating high school and planning to pursue STEM degrees in college. And they’re actively looking for sponsors to contribute supplies, resources and funding for the free workshops across the country.
“Software, hardware, the Internet—this all comes from someone,” said Sara “and it needs to be created by the people it’s for.” That includes women. According to one study, 74% of girls show interest in STEM fields in middle school, yet only 3% of them go on to pursue degrees in this field. 100 Girls of Code wants to change that, one girl at a time.