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Nonprofit Hopes to Increase Number of 'Girls Who Code' Through Big Expansion

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A national organization that works to close the gender gap in technology by encouraging more girls to learn about computer science through after-school and summer programs plans to announce a major expansion today  during the White House summit on Computer Science for All.

Within the next school year, Girls Who Code is set to triple its number of free, after-school programs known as Girls Who Code clubs to 1,500. The nonprofit is also now operating in all 50 states.

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The organization reports that just 18 percent of computer science graduates today are women, and by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in related fields. But women are on track to fill just 3 percent of them.

"We are very, very passionate about this mission of closing the gender gap, and we know that it's only going to happen if we reach as many girls as possible," said Emily Reid, the group's director of education.

The clubs are led by teachers, school librarians, college students studying computer science, and engineers who are willing to donate their time. They receive training and support from Girls Who Code, must pass a short assessment to show their computer science knowledge and have experience working with students in middle and high school. The clubs generally meet for two hours a week for about 20 weeks.

"We really believe in the guide-on-the side versus the sage-on-the-stage mentality, so we believe that our facilitators are able to help guide students through their learning rather than needing to be the expert and lecture to them," said Reid. "That's part of our core educational philosophy, and that's the way we think we can expand as quickly as we are."

In order to reach more girls, the organization's expansion comes with some curriculum changes as well to serve students of varying skill levels. Students are expected to learn about what the nonprofit calls the "core four": loops, conditionals, variables, and functions, or as Reid said, "the building blocks of learning how to code."

The curriculum is interest driven, so students who like video games or music can learn these concepts through projects related to those areas.

There's also a community service component to the program. The CS Impact Project is a club-wide effort that involves the students coming together to use computer science to benefit their community. For example, students might create a website to inform the public about a serious issue affecting the area such as homelessness.

And, the clubs emphasize what the organization calls "sisterhood." The girls are encouraged to support each other in their efforts, and the program hopes to raise the students' confidence about their abilities.

Reid, who is a computer scientist by training, said she knows through personal experience how important the support of other women can be when you're working in a male-dominated field.

"That experience is very much reflected in the research that exists around both girls and students of color staying in technology," said Reid. "That support network is crucial."

Reid said they believe that, by combining an effective support network with a strong foundation of knowledge about computer science, they'll close the gender gap.

"Our hope is that our girls will be both inspired to continue to learn more and eventually major or minor in computer science in college," said Reid.

Their efforts appear to be working. The organization reports that 65 percent of club participants say they're considering plans to major or minor in computer science as a result of what they learned from Girls Who Code. By the end of this academic year, the nonprofit, which began in 2012, is expected to have reached 40,000 students in all.

Any school or community organization with dedicated lab space, computers for each student, and Internet access can apply to host a club.

To find out more about the goings on at the White House conference today, look for my colleague Liana Heitin's post later today in Curriculum Matters.

 Photo: Students work on a computer science project through a Girls Who Code club in New York City. (Jessica Scranton)


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