Girls take a crack at coding, a high-tech skill

March 10th, 2017

By Ashley Sloboda | The Journal Gazette

To the unknowing, recent Wednesday evening activities in the downtown Allen County Public Library’s computer classroom likely don’t carry much significance.

The nights, after all, mostly involve girls looking at screens.

They aren’t checking their Facebook feeds or browsing videos on YouTube. What they’re learning is technical.

During one February session, their screens displayed lines of text on the left and the text’s visual translation on the right, such as animated graphics.

The half dozen or so middle and high schoolers are among thousands of girls nationwide who count themselves as Girls Who Code participants and alumnae.

Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. It has clubs throughout the country for girls interested in computer science and provides a curriculum for all skill levels.

The downtown library is one of six Girls Who Code sites in Indiana, according to the nonprofit’s website, which lists Elkhart and Plymouth as the nearest other clubs.

Although the library has held other technology programs, those have largely attracted boys, said Mari Hardacre, teen department manager. She said Girls Who Code offered an opportunity to involve more girls.

Liz Brooks, an eighth-grader at Summit Middle School, said she has grown used to being in engineering tech and computer science classes where boys outnumber girls.

Woodside Middle School eighth-grader Anna Towner said there’s no reason for girls not to try coding. She joined Girls Who Code with a friend to learn something new.

“It turns out I liked it,” the 13-year-old said, adding she’s able to learn at her own pace. “It’s very independent.”

The group has been meeting since January under the leadership of Rhoda Diwis, who has an associate degree in computer technology, a bachelor’s degree in information systems and a Master of Business Administration. Her accomplishments include founding tech startup company, Ditara Inc., to develop mobile apps for developing countries.

Diwis contacted the library when she learned it was seeking a Girls Who Code facilitator, she said; she had been looking for an opportunity to be a role model.

According to Girls Who Code, the gender gap in computer science has widened. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women, against 18 percent today. – a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to computer science and participation by women and underrepresented minorities – offers insight about the gender disparity among students in Indiana.

Of the 782 high school students who took the computer science Advanced Placement exam last year, only 18 percent were female. At the college level in 2014, 15 percent of the state’s 1,237 computer science graduates were women, it reports.

Because the subject sparked immediate interest in her, Diwis said it’s difficult for her to explain the gender gap. Speculating, she said maybe nothing draws girls to the space. 

Lucy La Hurreau, assistant professor of health information technology at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, offered another reason: female students often lack encouragement to take math and science courses.

“Women aren’t really pushed toward that,” La Hurreau said, but it’s important.

“If you ignore 50 percent of your population,” she said, referring to an adage, “you will ignore 50 percent of your potential.” 

Data show a need for people with computer science skills. reports 71 percent of new STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – jobs are in computing, but only 8 percent of STEM graduates are in computer science.

According to Girls Who Code, 1.4 million jobs will be available in computing-related fields by 2020. But while U.S. grads are on track to fill 29 percent of those positions, women are expected to fill only 3 percent.

Girls Who Code is for girls in grades six through 12 – an age group that generally shows waning interest in computing programs among girls. The organization reports that among 6- to 12-year-olds, 66 percent of girls are interested or enrolled in such programs compared to 32 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds and 4 percent of college freshmen.

Noting the club lets the girls be creative, Diwis said she enjoys watching them come up with ideas, even those about apps they wish existed. Watching them write and run code is also fun, she said.

“That never gets old,” she said of seeing code operating without a glitch.

Although the library’s current Girls Who Code session ends Wednesday, it likely won’t be some of the girls’ last exposure to the topic. Some have aspirations to work in the industry, Woodside eighth-grader Brooke Clements wants to be a software developer, while others, including Anna and eighth-grader Helen Bassett of Memorial Park Middle School, talked about taking computer science courses in high school.

Serena Perez-Takaya, a North Side High School senior, said the coding skills are good to know even though she wants to go into the medical field.

That’s a belief many others share., notes that computing is used in about every field and reports that 50 percent of Americans rank computer science as one of the two most important subjects after reading and writing. 

And, the Girls Who Code participants said, it’s fun.

Hardacre said the library hopes to resume the program in September.