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11 July 2016

Girls hit the code

Girls learn how to code at a new MagLab camp. Girls learn how to code at a new MagLab camp. Kristen Coyne

This week at the lab, girls are sitting down in front of a bunch credit-card sized computers to claim their rightful share of the coding pi.

That's "pi" as in Raspberry Pi, the name of the single-board computers these middle and high school girls will be using to learn programming. Over the course of a one-week camp, the students could help reverse a troubling trend: Their slice of the growing pie of well-paid computer science jobs has been steadily shrinking because fewer and fewer women study or work in the field.

The statistics have bothered Roxanne Hughes for some time. As director of the MagLab's Center for Integrating Research and Learning, she works to encourage women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences. While those numbers have been inching up in most categories, for women in computer science they're in a decades-long slump.

But this week's camp may help that downward-sloping line bounce back up in coming years. Each girl each will receive a computer, some instruction, lots of encouragement, and free reign to explore and create.

"Do you want it to say, ‘Good morning, how are you doing today?' when you turn your computer on?" suggested Sandie Chavez, who is co-teaching the camp. "You can do that. Let's show you how to do that."

Chavez has offered this experience before through Creators Camp, an organization she co-founded. Fear often comes between girls and computer science, she said: This camp destroys that boundary. "What we want to do is take that intimidation factor out of this male-dominated career path," she said, "and to say, ‘Ladies, we're about to have so much fun.'"

The profession's nerdy, quirky image is another boundary, said Hughes: Unfortunately, girls put off by the stereotype will be at a disadvantage in the sciences and many other fields, she added, where the ability to code is becoming increasingly important.

"The more we can get girls in safe spaces to explore gaming, coding and what they can do with computers," said Hughes, "the more likely they are to recognize the positive benefits of computing, have an interest in computing and be more motivated in getting involved in computing as a career."


Photo and text by Kristen Coyne.

Last modified on 11 July 2016