'Girls Who Code' can delete gender gaps in tech

PITTSFIELD — Behind every social media feed, blog and online game is computer code — and a lot of it.

Take it from rising eighth-grader, Ollie Walter. On Friday, she and her sister members of Girls Who Code Campus, a summer introduction to computer science hosted by Miss Hall's School, presented their creations at the end of the two-week program. Walter's team worked on the "Random Word Generator," a tool designed to stimulate people struggling from writer's block, or who just want to learn some new words. It was developed using Scratch, a free online software created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, designed for young innovators.

The generator will, with every click of the mouse, display a word, randomly selected from their database of 100 words, as well as an image that illustrates the word, its definition and pronunciation.

But to get that to happen, Walter and her team members had to produce lines of code, directions telling the computer program what to do, how to make it look on screen and at what speed the definitions and pictures should appear and fade. "It's very specific," she said of the process.

Walter said creating a code that could be replicated as a unit — through loops, variables, conditionals and functions — and then modified for each word spared her the time it would take to write unique lines of code 100 times.

With technology so much a part of "the way you live your life," she considers coding, computer and digital literacy to be life skills.

Chris Himes, Ph.D., believes this too. As the Miss Hall's director of Engineering & Technology Innovation and STEAM coordinator, he wants all people, but especially girls and women, to develop these skills as a tool of empowerment.

"When you think about or educational institutions and STEM fields and how it includes and excludes certain populations, there are a lot of negative ideas about having women in tech fields," he said, referring to national reports of sexism and undermining by male managers and colleagues.

Even research is slim on gender gaps, discrimination and wage disparity in these fields. But several reports have found that only around 27 percent of women globally go on to earn degrees or consider careers in the fields of technology. Once in the field, The National Center for Women & Technology reported that women are twice as likely to quit their job in the high tech field at a rate of 41 percent versus the rate of 17 percent for their male counterparts. Lack of support, flexibility for family and lack of opportunities for advancement were among the top reasons why women said they were leaving the field.

"If these things permeate our culture, it's not giving young women the expectation that they can do this," Himes said.

But in classrooms, with the right levels of instruction and support, he said he sees young women who are more than ready and able to complete tasks and innovations in technology.

The Girls Who Code Campus included students with a range of experience, from never coding to those who avidly read books on the subject. Each day, participants watched a video about different female leaders in the field of technology. They also had in-person support from mentor and assistant, Ginger Ciaburri, a Miss Hall's alumna who now studies computational linguistics at Wheaton College. Together, the group focused on creating projects using Scratch and devices known as Makey Makey, also developed at MIT.

Makey Makey is a physical computing device that uses a system of wires extending from a credit card-sized circuit board, which can be attached to everyday materials using alligator clips. Rising seventh grader, Kennedy Craig, demonstrated by plugging the USB cord of her Makey Makey devices into a laptop, then clipping the sensor wires to some pieces of teal Play-Doh. As she "clicked" on the dough, the computer responded as if she had clicked a button on a computer mouse.

"I like to use inspiration from other things I see and create projects based off of them," said Craig, who is also interested in developments through a network called Scrum.

She said if a computer game concept "doesn't exist, I know enough so I can make it."

Sydney Moriarty, also a rising seventh-grader, said she "loved" Girls Who Code and getting to be with other young women with similar interests.

In the sessions, students were encouraged to be curious, creative and to have fun. Everyone contributed something, from ideas about projects to what to put on the camp's music playlist, to how to overcome a challenge.

Rising eighth graders Solitaire Niles and Nia Franklin said the encouragement can go a long way.

"My mom wanted me to try this but at first I didn't want to come here because I don't like meeting new people because in your head you think, people are going to judge me," said Franklin.

Her team ultimately created an interactive game about making positive decisions to help make friends.

"It's pretty much something everyone struggles with," Niles said.

Their camp experiences have now led them to think that to be successful in life, young people need as many skills and opportunities as they can get, whether they're social or technical.

Said Franklin, "It's about education. It's not just about boys or powerful, educated women. Changing the world is something anyone can do."

"Once they put their minds to it," Niles said.


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