No more boys club

<p>Close</p> your eyes for a few seconds and picture a computer programmer or coder. 

Odds are high you just pictured a man in the role, maybe even a loner or a geek.

And it isn’t just adults who share in this preconceived notion. Children do, too, including young girls, which only feeds the stereotype.

Women make up only 18 percent of our nation’s computer-science majors at the college level, down even from past decades, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. 

But thanks to the administrators at St. Catherine University in St. Paul — and a Minnesota-based not-for-profit group known as Code Savvy — that may change.

Earlier this year St. Kate’s National Center for STEM Elementary Education hosted its first Katie CoderDojo, a free, monthly, girls-only coding class for ages 8 to 16.

Classes last about two hours and are facilitated by computer-savvy volunteers, including some men. 

“Girls make fun, playful apps that are easy to use,” said Patty Born Selly, executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education. “We see this as a very important way to help introduce girls to the field of computer science, to help them develop mathematical and analytical thinking skills, and to have fun learning something new. We wanted to do some outreach around girls and technology because that is a field where girls are especially unrepresented.”

 

<Girls-only haven> 

So how does Katie CoderDojo stir girls’ interest in computer science? They get them onto computers and having fun with coding before a boys-club mentality has a chance to solidify. 

Instruction in the program includes a mix of mentoring and peer-to-peer learning.

“It’s less intimidating for girls to ask girls for help,” Born Selly said, adding that female students seem to be more confident in their abilities and less self-conscious when in an all-girls learning atmosphere. 

St. Kate’s university environment — the nation’s largest undergraduate college for women — has proven attractive to attendees, too. 

“Our sessions fill up within hours of registration opening,” Born Selly said. “Many of our attendees are first-timers, but we also get a lot of returning girls who want to build their skill base.”

Each session has space for about 50 girls. More sessions may be added in 2015 if interest stays strong, Born Selly said. 

 

<AppInventor and Scratch>

Most participants have little to no coding experience.

Girls learn using two programs geared toward younger users: There’s Scratch — for first timers and those who want a simpler interface (scratch.mit.edu) — and AppInventor — for those who’ve outgrown Scratch or want to try something more advanced (appinventor.mit.edu). 

Both programs are free and can be downloaded 

to any computer for further experimentation outside of class. 

Girls are given basic instructions and then set free to figure things out for themselves with the mentors standing by, ready to help when they hit a snag or need inspiration.

 

Mentors with coding experience are on hand during classes to help grils develop games and more. 

 

<Creativity at work>

During a recent Katie CoderDojo, 8-year-old Mackenzie Cave from St. Paul worked diligently on building a computer game — a maze game featuring a ballerina sprite — while her sister offered suggestions. 

The goal of their game? As the sprite pirouettes across the screen, the player must maneuver her deftly to avoid hitting objects. 

Taking turns at the mouse and keyboard, the sisters attempted to solve the problem of making the sprite move a set distance for every time an arrow key was pressed.

Next to them, 10-year-old Lorelei Walker of Minneapolis worked the entire session on a keep-away game she’s creating with a Halloween theme. 

“Don’t let the witch touch you,” she warned mentor Chris Ross, who tested her creation at the end of the session. 

“There’s no possible way to win so far,” Lorelei admitted with a laugh. “I haven’t figured out how to make them move while they jump.”

“Well it’s new,” Ross replied, grinning, adding: “You’ve just set the difficulty extremely high.” 

Lorelei will be back next month to continue working on her Scratch creation.

 

<The positive effects>

Anakka Heitkamp, a 10-year-old from Chaska, has been to three Katie CoderDojo sessions. 

Thanks to her experiences in the classes, she now feels more confident that she’ll do well in her technology classes at school. She also feels secure enough to offer advice to her friends when they get stuck on their own projects. 

But perhaps the most positive sign of how Katie CoderDojo can help young girls see themselves as equals in the technology field came during a conversation with Anakka and her mother, Sara Heitkamp, about meeting a female videogame programmer in Germany. 

Anakka brings up the comments made a few months ago by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella about women in the computing field not needing to ask for raises. 

Her opinion? 

Not only should women be in the technology field, but they should also get equal pay.

“It doesn’t matter what gender you are,” she said. “Girls can do the same work, the same amount of work as boys. I think girls should get paid the same.”

Now that’s some awfully mature wisdom for a 10-year-old — and just the kind of confidence Katie CoderDojo is working to create. 

 

/Learn more/

Code Savvy: This Minnesota not-for-profit organization offers not just classes for girls (Katie CoderDojo), but a wide variety of co-ed programming, including clubs, camps and classes for kids and teens, plus workshops for educators, all designed to eliminate gender and socioeconomic barriers to computer science. Learn more at codesavvy.org.

STEM: STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University works to improve teacher effectiveness, advance student performance, strengthen STEM literacy and increase individual candidate appeal in competitive job markets. See stem.stkate.edu for more information.

Women and technology: Learn about the need for girls and women in the technology at the National Center for Women and Information Technology at ncwit.org

 

/Attend a class/

What: Katie CoderDojo is a place for girls and young women ages 8 to 16 to explore computer programming and digital creativity.

When: 2 to 4 p.m. on various Sundays. The next class is Dec. 14. (Registration opens Nov. 25.)

Where: St. Catherine University, St. Paul. 

Cost: FREE

Info: See stem.stkate.edu or codesavvy.org/p/katie-coderdojo.html