Girls Who Code

Laying the Groundwork for Future Female Tech Leaders

By Taylor Smith 

Photos courtesy of Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code was founded by Reshma Saujani six years ago with the aim of closing the gender gap in computing classes in schools across the nation. Girls Who Code is now 90,000 strong in all 50 states, building the largest pipeline of future female engineers in the United States. Its Clubs Program, Campus Program, and Summer Immersion Program help to create accessible pathways for Girls Who Code alumni to enter into university and workforce computing programs. The organization also offers continued learning opportunities for Girls Who Code alumni to enhance their professional computer science skills.

Saujani’s original vision for the nonprofit organization has proved to be effective. Girls Who Code alumni are entering higher education and choosing to major in computer science or related fields “at a rate of 15 times the national average,” according to the organization’s website, www.girlswhocode.com. Even more noteworthy, “African American and Latina alumni are choosing to major in computer science or related fields at a rate of 16 times the national average.”

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Square and Twitter, says, “diversity and inclusiveness are essential in every industry, and they are critical in tech. Building companies that are as diverse as the people who rely on our products is not only the right thing to do, it is good business. Girls Who Code helps us to create a stronger community around girls and women that will empower the next generation to be leaders in technology.”

The community created by the Girls Who Code programs aims to build a supportive sisterhood of young students and alumni who are better prepared to meet the demands of computing job opportunities. Statistics show that while tech jobs are among the fastest growing in the country, girls are falling behind. “While interest in computer science ebbs over time, the biggest drop off happens between the ages of 13-17,” as noted on girlswhocode.com.

Leslie Landis, a student from New York City who participated in Girls Who Code, says, “Before Girls Who Code, I never saw myself as a coder or an engineer. Girls Who Code gave me not just valuable coding skills, but a valuable opportunity to see myself in a whole new way. Now, I see myself as someone who can take on a big industry regardless of the gender gap. I am a more able, confident, and ambitious girl with big dreams and
I want to share that with everyone around the world.”

The Clubs Program is organized by grade. Groupings are usually girls in grades three to five and six through 12. According to Girls Who Code website, the Three-Five Clubs can be run entirely unplugged, with optional online aspects. The curriculum has girls read and discuss a nonfiction book,  Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World. They then work together to complete thematically-related challenges.

Princeton Public Library has teamed up with the Princeton High School division of Girls Who Code, hosting bi-monthly meetings in their second floor Technology Center. The group is open to elementary through high school students from all area Princeton schools with an emphasis on early conceptual programming and inclusivity. Meeting dates, times, and scheduling are posted at princetonlibrary.org.

Arta Szatharmy, a Girls Who Code educator, believes that the program is particularly impactful for middle school-aged girls. Szatharmy facilitates programs in the Bucks County region and frequently utilizes the facilities at Bucks County Community College. As a retired teacher, Szatharmy has taught both high school- and college-aged students but emphasizes that girls ages 10-14, “haven’t yet made up their minds whether they want to pursue STEM fields or computer programming. In this sense, they are like sponges and soak up the Girls Who Code curriculum rapidly.”

Szatharmy notes, “Girls Who Code addresses girls who are homeschooled, as well.” Under her tutelage, young girls have learned to program a robot and how to write a game for a skyscraper in Philadelphia. 

Liz Palena, a youth services librarian at Plainsboro Public Library, recently initiated a local Central New Jersey Chapter of Girls Who Code for grades three to six and seven to 12. The afterschool programs will include 12 sessions over the course of three months, meeting once per week at Plainsboro Public Library. Personal laptops are not required for attendance as girls will have full access to the library’s many computers. Thanks in part to Palena’s efforts, as well as the current director, Plainsboro Public Library will be receiving an additional 10 new laptops and three 3D printers. Girls Who Code afterschool programs are entirely free to attend.

Palena says, “it’s important to introduce elementary- and middle school-aged girls to computer coding in order to let them know that this is an option.”

“What people also don’t realize is that coding can serve as a creative outlet,” she adds. Girls have used their computer coding skills and applied them to everything from fashion design to the fine arts and art installations.”

When asked about outreach, Palena says she mainly worked with school librarians at the local Plainsboro public elementary, middle, and high schools. She notes that STEM education is a particularly important part of the culture at the Plainsboro public schools, having gone through the system herself.

“Back then, I was one of four girls on the school’s robotics teams. It’s since changed a lot. The Plainsboro teachers are really pushing for boys and girls to get equally involved in STEM activities.”

Palena will be following and closely leading the Girls Who Code curriculum over the course of the three months beginning this September. Amazingly, she also balances her full-time job commitments at Plainsboro Public Library with completing her graduate degree in information science at Rutgers University.

“I started out teaching after finishing my undergraduate degree, but found that I wasn’t connecting with students in the ways that I had hoped,” she says. “I had always worked in the school library when I was in college and Plainsboro Public Library is my hometown library and that seemed like a better fit. As a librarian, I was obtaining the level of outreach with young people that I had strived for as a teacher.”

But boys don’t have to miss out on all the fun! For example, Plainsboro Public Library offers a very popular Junior Engineer Club. This September, the club will be using the 3D printers for the Annual Egg Drop Off. Boys and girls will use the printers to build a well-engineered cage to hold one egg. The cages will then be dropped off the roof of the Plainsboro Public Library. The winning design will keep the egg perfectly intact.

To find a Girls Who Code Club and/or campus activities in your area, visit www.girlswhocode.com/locations.

Learn to code, have fun, and join the sisterhood!