Santa Clara County, Education, Tech

County Library Helps Girls Break Tech Barriers

Cupertino Branch Hosts ‘Girls Who Code’ Program

A class in computer coding just for girls should not sound out of the ordinary in Cupertino, a city that sits in the heart of Silicon Valley and whose test scores soar. Even here, computing is mostly a game for boys and men.

But if two 11-year-old twin girls, Sanjana and Alisha Gadaginmatlh, have anything to say about it, the glass ceiling over computer coding will come crashing down some day. Just when is anyone’s guess, but it’s a safe bet these young sisters will be there when it happens. And what they do as women in computing may change the industry in profound ways.

“Coding is something I can do to improve things in the world,” said Alisha, who peered over her pink laptop at the Cupertino Library, a branch of the Santa Clara County Public Library system. Her sister, Sanjana, hasn’t quite made up her mind how she’ll use her computing skills in the future. “I think I want to be a doctor or an engineer.”

For now, they belong to a group of 20 girls who come to the library every Thursday night for classes sponsored by Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization, founded in 2012, that encourages girls to get into coding and development. The New York City-based group claims to have about 10,000 girls enrolled in weekly classes or summer workshops in 42 states.

The classes at the Cupertino Library combine inspirational exercises and nuts-and-bolts lessons. Arthi Suresh, a volunteer teacher and data scientist from Facebook, asked each girl to look up a woman in technology and share her story with the class.  

“Technology was something that was not even on my radar when I was their age,” Suresh said. “This is the age where you can still inspire them.”

Ironically, as high-tech jobs proliferate, the gender gap is widening. Although more than 80 percent of tech jobs are in engineering and computing, the American Association of University Women reported in 2015 that women comprise only 12 percent of the engineering workforce and 26 percent of the computing workforce. Girls Who Code reports that In 1984,  37 percent of all computer science graduates were women. That number has dropped to only 18 percent.

Mission of Girls Who Code

The mission of Girls Who Code isn’t just about catching up in employment. It’s also about bringing a distinctly female perspective to technology. Girls code differently. Boys and young men at coding camps usually work on video games. At the Cupertino classes, the girls decided as a group to build a website for dealing with stress and anxiety.

To get the girls to that level, Suresh and another volunteer instructor, Cisco Systems engineer Hatwinder Chawla, set about teaching the basic “Four Core” concepts of computer programming. These involve getting computers to process data, make decisions, repeat certain “loops” or patterns, and store information.

To someone who’s never coded, the task might seem driven by complex mathematics, but it’s a mostly verbal task. The Cupertino Girls Who Code class used basic computer languages, including Scratch and JavaScript.

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“It’s not numbers. It’s all words,” said Jeevitha Niranjan, 14. “ It’s not that hard, but it can get frustrating.”

At another table for the older girls, 16-year-old Catherine Kim said, “It’s all about ordering a computer around.”

This was a group of girls already set on going to college, but only a few at most were intent on studying computing in college. Kim is more interested in studying drama.

But like others with non-tech dreams, her parents told her that coding would be a good skill to have, just in case.

“I’m still exploring my options,” Kim said.

Statics on women in coding

In less than ten years, the American Association of University Women said, the United States will need 1.7 million more engineers and computing professionals and can’t afford to ignore half of the nation’s talent pool. But closing the gender gap remains a tough task. Many studies have shown that droves of girls start losing interest in science and math between the ages of 13 and 17.

However, Preeti Naidu, 16, is proof that girls can discover a passion for computing during those crucial years. She caught the bug after attending her first coding camp last summer.

“You can say I came to the game late,” Preetis said. “I always heard the boys talking about it, and I thought, ‘Well, I can do that, too.”

This is the kind of confidence that  Girls Who Code strives to instill, with help from the Santa Clara County Library system.

November 17, 2016

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