Want to Interest Girls in Tech? Teach Them to Code

That’s the idea behind the IEEE Women in Engineering code camp

18 August 2015

“How many of you have ever programmed?” asks Mitch Diamond, senior design engineer at Intel’s Boston office, of a roomful of middle and high school girls attending the first IEEE Women in Engineering Girls “It’s Cool to Code” camp. “Everyone’s hand should be up. If you set an alarm, you programmed it to beep in order to wake you up in the morning.”

Diamond was the instructor at the camp, held from 13 to 17 July at the Notre Dame Preparatory School, in Towson, Md., just outside Baltimore. Twelve attendees signed up to spend five hours a day learning to program and create their own video games and “to be smarter than the boys,” as eighth grader Abby Cohen put it. The girls came from Notre Dame and other schools in the area.

IEEE Member Pam Jones, an independent software developer, organized the event with support from IEEE WIE and funding from Northrop Grumman, in Falls Church, Va. She has been organizing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities for preuniversity students in the Baltimore area for 15 years. Jones saw, however, that few girls were showing up for her events. There’s a stereotype that programming is not for girls, she says, and the ones who do show up often “dumb down” and feign less interest in front of the boys.

So she decided to create a program just for girls. Teaching girls to code is a great way to show them career opportunities in STEM, says Jones. “It may not be as easy as other careers, but I want them to know they can do this.”

GETTING STARTED

To create their video games, the students used a platform called Greenfoot, which helps beginners learn the Java programming language. Java is often used to build games because it’s designed to program objects to perform actions, such as run, change direction, explode, and change size.

Participants also learned basic programming terminology, including object, class, and methods. They were able to start writing their own code by the second day. They picked it up so quickly, says Diamond, that he completed his lessons in half the time he had allocated. They spent their extra time asking questions about how technology works and practicing their new skills.

“We need more girls in technology,” Diamond says. “They have different points of view and can provide new insights. We have to balance the field.”

Over the course of the week, the girls created online video games that can be played on personal computers using the arrows on their keyboards. For example, one game has players use the arrows to direct fish away from a shark. Two girls who worked together on this programmed the shark to swim in random directions so the player can’t guess which way it would turn. Two other students designed a game that has a player use the keys to guide a turtle around a beach so it will eat all the worms on the sand before time runs out. Characters and visual elements for the games are available on the Greenfoot platform. But some students went the extra mile and downloaded images from the Web, which they then programmed as characters into their games.

“Students who arrived on Monday morning with no coding experience left five days later able to develop games of their own,” Jones says.

Erica Reynolds, a high school student at Notre Dame, signed up for code camp during her summer vacation, she says, to get a better understanding of what happens “behind the scenes” in technology. Her dad, a programmer, talks to her about his work. She says that learning to code will make it easier to understand what he does.

Beyond video games, these girls seemed to be well connected to STEM. All were interested in some aspects of technology. Some were passionate about robotics and mobile apps, while others wanted to know more about hacking. The girls learned that hackers break into systems by looking for mistakes in code. One student says she plans to continue learning to program to better protect her family’s online security.

EXTRA CREDIT

On the last day, the attendees received thumb drives with the Greenfoot platform so they could continue to work on projects at home. Diamond notes there are YouTube tutorials the students can refer to for guidance. He also encourages parents to program with their kids.

Jones would like to see the code camp program grow and encourages other IEEE members to hold camps in their local communities. “I hope the camp gave the girls self-confidence and taught them not to be afraid to try new things,” she says.

Adds Diamond, “Programming is a way of thinking. And although not all the girls will become programmers, technology is part of our daily lives and it’s important for them to think about how it all works and, above all, to ask questions.”

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