FEMMES encourages middle-school girls to acquire coding skills

Earlier this year, middle school girls used algorithms to strategically string beads into bracelets as part of a coding exercise for the University of Chicago FEMMES Code Camp. The event aimed to introduce computer science to girls in a series of entertaining and hands-on activities set to continue throughout the year.

“I wanted to start Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Science and our Code Camp because I wanted to help bridge the gender gap that exists in computer science,” said Megan Renshaw, a rising fourth-year majoring in math and computer science. Renshaw is president of the UChicago branch of FEMMES and the recipient of a Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship.

“The goal was to get the girls excited and energized about the possibilities in computer science and to show them that they were capable of being successful computer scientists.”

The girls participated in activities that focused on key logic concepts in computer science. For example, sorting, control flow and optimizing strategies for solving problems were explored in games such as the bracelet-making exercise.

This exercise divided the girls into teams that were then given a pattern and a method to make the bracelets. For instance, the pattern might be a color combination, such as yellow-blue-green, and the method that the girls could grab only one bead at a time, or that they had to hop on one foot. The point was to have fun while learning that there are many strategies to solve a problem. It was up to the participants to determine what was a good strategy.

Many of these exercises taught the camp leaders as much as the girls because, as Renshaw noted, some of the leaders also were learning code for the first time. In fact, the ones who had no experience coding were often the best teachers because they could see it from the eyes of the students. Their enthusiasm to learn was infectious, and the first camp ended in success, Renshaw said. The next Code Camp will build on that success and extend outside the camp itself in a series of coding workshops.

“While the Code Camp was primarily focused on reaching girls with zero coding experience and sparking an interest, the workshops will offer the opportunity for us to teach girls on a much deeper level and give them the opportunity to really start developing their own projects,” Renshaw said. “We will be teaching everything from iOS/Android to Python to introductory concepts and theory. The workshops will culminate in Computer Science Week in December when the girls will get to present their projects to professional software engineers.”

The camp targeted middle school girls because the leaders of the camp believed they were at the crucial age to receive encouragement to pursue training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Computer science is the only STEM field where the percentage of women has dropped in the last 30 years. In 1984, women made up 37 percent of computer science graduates, while today they make up about 14 percent,” said Renshaw. “I think the biggest challenge for most girls in overcoming the gender gap and sticking with computer science is confidence.

“Another really crucial piece of this confidence issue is that girls are far less likely to be encouraged to enter STEM fields than boys. In many cases, encouragement from a teacher, family member or even a peer can be vital in getting girls to choose computer science in spite of gender stereotypes and social biases that push girls away from STEM fields.”

The Code Camp featured speakers to inspire the girls. Jenna Garcia, Chicago region district manager of Code.org, gave the camp’s keynote address. Jennifer Wesley, head of industry at Google, talked about innovation and the creative processes behind some of Google’s projects, such as Google Glass and self-driving cars. The talks emphasized using creativity to solve challenges.

The leaders had their own challenge: this was the first Code Camp. They included a broad range of exercises that would resonate with different types of students. From the post-event surveys, it was clear that every girl left the camp with at least one activity that they enjoyed.

In upcoming camp sessions, the leaders will add more STEM lessons to the curriculum. Many physics, biology, chemistry, geology and other science majors at UChicago use coding in their daily work. From their research, projects in fields such as bioinformatics, data visualization and data statistics have added new study areas to explore. The leaders hope to multiply interest in STEM and coding through this exploration of the sciences. In addition, they are striving to broaden the camp’s impact throughout the neighborhoods surrounding UChicago.

“As we grow, we think it is critical to continue adding new faces with unique perspectives to our program,” Renshaw said. “This diversity will help make FEMMES as great as possible and will allow us to better represent the broad range of opportunities in computer science.

“It is an incredibly fun and engaging field that can open up many doors for all. I want to help girls in our community get that message and encourage them to pursue their interests in this amazing field.”