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Inside Look: Teaching at Girls Who Code

I am spending this summer as a teacher with Girls Who Code. Our movement has grown from a single inaugural class in New York City, to nineteen programs across the country only two years later, reaching nearly four hundred young women and teaching them computer science. People ask me, how is the teaching going? I never know what to say, and I usually stick with an understatement: “It is intense.”

I joined Girls Who Code as a teacher because I like coding, I like teaching, and I like the idea of working toward a world where I might have more than a handful of female coworkers. Little did I know, the term “teacher” doesn’t quite encompass what I would been doing all summer. In addition to explaining how to think and code like a programmer, I am a cross between a college-camp-career counselor, therapist, cheerleader, big sister, mother, and honorary teenage girl. A decade their senior, I’m on the precipice between being cool and being lame, but for the most part, I think I clock in at just cool enough. That’s on days when I’m not asking super basic questions about how to use Instagram. 

I am constantly struggling to overcome my students’ fear of trying something new while the risk of failure taunts them, only a few keystrokes away. The older we get, the more courage it takes to try things we’ve never done before, fail, and not let that failure destroy our confidence. This is why it is so important for computer science to be introduced to students as early as elementary school: learning these concepts is significantly easier when we haven’t yet developed our intricate emotional responses to failure, when we aren’t yet scared of making mistakes.

Everyone knows what it’s like to be a teenager, when it seems like judging eyes follow your every move and any deviation from the norm could yield isolation. Today, it isn’t typical for girls to be interested in the technical side of technology, ironic as it sounds. A huge part of teaching with Girls Who Code is convincing and cajoling my students into simply taking the risk of trying. Reminding them that when they stick their necks out to ask or answer a question, no one will snicker or write them off. Telling them that it’s okay to care and it’s okay to screw up, because I’ll always have their backs, and I’ll never leave them behind. It saddens me that there are learning environments in the world where kids and even teachers make other kids feel like they aren’t worthy of learning, but Girls Who Code isn’t one of those places. We celebrate uniqueness, creativity, and especially, risk-taking.

The stereotype of a programmer is a hoodie-attired antisocial nerd in huge headphones, working secluded in a basement for hours on end, never seeing the light of day. I think the biggest disservice this image does to computer science as a field is that it perpetuates the reputation that programming is something we do alone. That’s why this summer, we have been teaching our students to lean on each other and lean on their teaching staff and build relationships with the industry professionals they have met. The Girls Who Code teachers lean on teachers at other sites as well as on the greater Girls Who Code administrative staff. None of this could happen in a vacuum. I wouldn’t be half the teacher I am without the ideas, advice, and encouragement I’ve found in my support system. I want my students to internalize that asking for help is a sign of strength and confidence, not weakness. 

Slowly, the time we all spent working through logic, picking out syntax errors, delivering pep-talks, pair programming, and sharing ideas has started to yield results. My student who tended to shut down and turn to her phone’s facebook feed when she was struggling is finally staying on task. Another who had never coded before this summer has found programming so gratifying that she stayed up till 4am trying to finish a class project (to both my pride and dismay). Last week, one student announced that the most important lesson she has learned this summer is that “we are more than our failures.” Nearly the entire class successfully coded solutions to an interview question I’ve seen multiple times while job searching, and on their own, they came up with sorting algorithms that I encountered for the first time in a college computer science course. I’d hire these girls in a heartbeat, and they’re sixteen.

The modern tendency to speed, skim, and skip through the articles we read tempts me to pick the most appealing bits of this story and wrap them into a tidy package to ship out into the world, but I can’t bear to give Girls Who Code such treatment.  All of the good we have accomplished means nothing without mention of the obstacles we’re painstakingly chipping away.  Our students will have achieved so much between our first day together, when many hadn’t seen a line of code in their lives, and their graduation, by which time they’ll have logged over two hundred hours of classroom instruction and completed at least ten college-level programming assignments. Ask any of my girls if it has been easy, and they’ll say no way. Ask any Girls Who Code teacher if it has been a breeze, and they’ll probably say this is one of the hardest jobs they’ve ever had. The more interesting question is whether it has been worthwhile, and fortunately, the answer is all around us. Girls Who Code alumni are majoring in computer science at the best schools in the country and are interning at the most successful companies of all time. They are starting Girls Who Code clubs in their communities and paying their new skills forward. These girls are on their way to big things, and I’m proud to be part of a movement that is cultivating the great technical minds of tomorrow.

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Ilana is teaching with Girls Who Code in San Ramon, California, hosted by General Electric. She graduated from Tufts University with a degree in computer science, after which she worked for four years as a web developer before leaving her job to travel and teach. While not teaching girls how to code, Ilana channels her creative energy into writing essays and poetry. 

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We are incredibly honored (and SO excited) to be featured in Time’s new video, “Cracking The Girl Code”. Click on the article to watch!

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Reflecting on a Summer at Girls Who Code

As the West Coast Summer Immersion Programs start to wind down, Arriana D., a current student at GWC Intuit, shares her experiences and reflects on what she’s learned. 

The Girls Who Code program has been fantastic. I went into the program with no expectation at all because I had never participated in something like it. Now, having completed most of the program, I am inspired to continue exploring computer science on my own. The motivation to pursue computer science came from the great environment that both my teachers and peers created. They encourage and support the exploration of new ideas so that computer science becomes a fun and interactive experience. The curriculum is very intensive and we have learned so many skills within a very short period. In week one, many girls had never seen code or practiced programing at all. Now, we are all working on creating final projects using our lessons in robots to web development. Though our class works very hard, we also make time for fun. Some of the girls have had birthdays during the seven weeks and we have celebrated in class with parties! Someone made a program that simulated a flickering candle that was blown out when you clicked the mouse for the birthday wish. Even a game of musical chairs inspired the development of a Musical Chairs Chrome Extension to make the process of playing and selecting music easier for all of the participants!

Girls Who Code has also provided a way to explore the applications of computer science via curriculum and speakers. Before I entered the program, I was interested in coding but I didn’t see the practical applications of it. The exposure to many speakers, workshops and field trips have made it easier to imagine one’s self in a tech workplace. I have also really enjoyed that the lessons not only focus on the hard skills of learning to code, but has also provided outlets to practice public speaking, leadership and entrepreneurship. Workshops like LEAN experimentation were helpful in learning how to develop an idea and adapt it to the needs of a customer. Not only was this workshop enjoyable, it is applicable to any industry.  Field trips to Google and Facebook aided in giving GWC participants an idea of what working in the tech community might be like. However, my favorite addition to the curriculum has been the speakers. They have been a great resource for everything from personal mindsets to career advice in the future. The speakers have been a diverse group.  Founders of startups, UX Researchers, Software Engineers and many more have walked through the door of our little learning space and given wonderful presentations. All were gracious enough to be open to questions and encourage us on our paths in the tech industry.

 

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5 Tips from a Girls Who Code Student on How to Survive your First Week

Hey guys! My name is Alex, and I’m in the 2014 Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program hosted at AppNexus! I just finished my first week at Girls Who Code, and based on what I’ve learned so far, I’m here with some basic advice for any girl who’s in the program or is considering applying for next year. Take a look:

1. Don’t feel afraid to try just because of premonitions! As a writer, I never, never, never thought I could code — I thought it involved heavy math and science (not my strongest suits), and thought that I had to have had prior experience to enter the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program. Absolutely none of that is true! Coding is really more of a language — a series of languages, actually — and so far, I’ve used math once: to figure out what each angle of a shape I was coding should be (each angle was exactly 51.42857142857143 — so, given that I clearly used a calculator to figure that out, it’s safe to say we didn’t do any hardcore stuff). Take a chance! You’ll be glad you did.

2. Every girl moves at her own pace. On my third day, we were coding a video game of paddleball. Although the game is a pretty simple concept for humans, I didn’t think it would be so simple for computers. While I was still figuring out how to get the mouse to control my paddle, the girl next to me was already customizing her game. I felt intimidated for a minute, but remembered that we’d both earned our spots in the program. If she could pick it up, then so could I. So don’t feel threatened! And later that day, I helped one of the more prodigious students code a square, when I was already onto coding heptagons. Which leads into my next point:

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I’m deaf in one ear, and because I couldn’t hear instructions all that well in school, wound up figuring out most things for myself. That habit carried on into Girls Who Code. If I didn’t understand something, I would experiment or look over to see what the girl next to me was coding. While those strategies can work out short-term, you won’t actually learn anything. So don’t worry about seeming slow to the other girls; if you don’t understand something, ask the teacher or a TA for help! Once they help you work through it, you’ll have a breakthrough, like I did with the slot machine, and finally understand. Then girls will be looking at your code!

4. Don’t buy into stereotypes. When we think of coders, we think of antisocial, acne-covered men who live in their basements and play video games in their spare time. Those are fictional characters; they don’t exist! When walking into AppNexus, I saw plenty of friendly people playing air hockey and rocking out to Pharrell - and plenty of them were women. You could be a closeted nerd or a prom queen stereotype from a late-nineties teen movie — it doesn’t matter! What matters is how you code and what you create with it. If you want to code a virtual pair of heels, fine — just make sure you proofread your if/else statements.

5. Don’t get so hung up on blocks of code. On my first day at Girls Who Code, we were fortunate enough to hear from Theresa Vu, the Engineering Director of AppNexus. She wasn’t particularly passionate about computer science in college because she was so focused on data and algorithms rather than the outcome of her projects. In her own words: “It would be like if coding was astronomy — I was so focused on the telescope that I forgot to look at the stars.” In writing, I found the ability to create something beautiful out of nothing absolutely magical, and when I realized the same concepts carried into coding — when I saw what I could do — I was awestruck. If you ever feel frustrated with your code, just remember what it’s really all about. Stop to look at the stars.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be here all summer, so check back in next week for my next blog post! 

Alex K. is a 15-year-old writer who is deaf in one ear. She attends high school and college and has written for Seventeen Magazine, the New York Times Learning Network, Scholastic, Johns Hopkins, and Lean In among others. She is currently working to develop a pair of closed-captioned movie-theater glasses for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. 

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We love this video of our Girls Who Code group over at Intuit, and their epic tournament-style robot competition. For the inaugural “Scribby Go Home” challenge, the girls had to write the program that would enable the robots to detect a black box (against a white background) and then navigate home. The first robot to reach the box, or get the closest within 30 seconds, moved on to the next round. After the competition, the whole classroom broke out in a spirited rendition of “We Are the Champions.” Who ever said CS isn’t fun? Keep up the great work, girls!

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Tonight is the night!

Girls Who Code class of 2012 will have their graduation ceremony at Google and demonstrate their final projects…we couldn’t be more excited for them or to see their apps!

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"A woman is 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man in developing countries."

— Ann Mei Chang

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Congrats to our Executive Director Kristen Titus on being named one of Forbes 100 Women Changing the World!

Congrats to our Executive Director Kristen Titus on being named one of Forbes 100 Women Changing the World!

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Congrats to our founder Reshma Saujani on being named one of Forbes 100 Women Changing the World!

Congrats to our founder Reshma Saujani on being named one of Forbes 100 Women Changing the World!

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another reason we need girls who code

Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.