Taking on the gender gap with Girls Who Code

Seven-week course encourages young women to tackle computer science.

By Kylie Foy | Technical Communications Group

In 1984, 37% of college graduates with degrees in computer science were women. Since then, the number has plummeted to 18% and is still declining. While computer science jobs are among the fastest growing in the country, there is a widening gap between the number of males and females equipped to fill these positions. The Girls Who Code (GWC) organization, founded in 2012, takes aim at this issue by teaming up with technology companies and institutions across the country to build "the largest pipeline of future female engineers in the United States."

Girls Who CodeThe Laboratory hosted a Girls Who Code computer science immersion program at Beaver Works, a center in Cambridge, Mass., run by Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT School of Engineering.

This summer, Lincoln Laboratory, in collaboration with Verizon, joined the ranks of GWC partners by hosting a seven-week immersion program for 20 local rising juniors and seniors in high school. Through the GWC summer program, students learn the basics of computer science, from robotics to web development, while gaining exposure to the tech industry and to mentorship from women with careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

"As is common, many of the girls in the program don't have programming instruction at their high schools. It's often very hard to have hands-on experience before going into college," said Beijia Zhang, an Associate Technology Officer at Lincoln Laboratory. Zhang and Bernadette Johnson, former Chief Technology Officer, organized the Laboratory's summer program after meeting the founder of GWC at last year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest science and technology conference for women.

The curriculum, which doesn't require prior coding experience, is provided by GWC and taught by local teachers hired by the organization. Some lessons covered HTML (hypertext markup language) and CSS (cascading style sheets) for web design, and Python for programming robots. In one lesson, the girls interacted with a robot built on an Arduino platform; this small robot can be controlled by programming a basic computer board.

In addition to providing the space at Beaver Works for the GWC sessions, the Laboratory supported the program by providing guest speakers and mentors. Eric Evans, the director of Lincoln Laboratory, visited the class to talk about the kinds of projects developed at the Laboratory, and Shafi Goldwasser, a professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, shared a presentation about cryptography. During a mentorship event in July, 18 female Laboratory staff members visited the class to talk about their experiences one on one with students, discussing everything from college classes and professors to gender bias and navigating a first job after college.

Girls Who CodeDuring a mentorship event, Lisa Basile (back right) and Karishma Chadha (back left) discuss the college search process with two students.

"I do a lot of recruiting for the Laboratory, and as a result I'm always reminded of the 'pipeline problem'—that there aren't enough women graduating with degrees in science and technology in the candidate pool to move the needle substantially on the gender imbalance we see in STEM workplaces," said Lisa Basile, a mentor from the Laboratory's Tactical Defense Systems Group. "This was a chance to actively work on the pipeline problem, so for me it was motivational."

A field trip to the Laboratory helped the girls gain exposure to the range of possible technology jobs. During the visit, they learned about laser communications and toured workspaces used in developing technology for air traffic control and persistent surveillance. Lalitha Parameswaran of the Chemical, Microsystem, and Nanoscale Technologies Group demonstrated how to use a scanning electron microscope, and Donna-Ruth Yost of the Quantum Information and Integrated Nanosystems Group showed the group a unique cleanroom in the Microelectronics Laboratory. The students also participated in professional development talks, such as a presentation about interviewing and internships given by Alexandra Day, also from the Quantum Information and Integrated Nanosystems Group.

The visit concluded with a robotics demonstration in which associate technical staff member Ekaterina Kononov demonstrated how to control a robot and explained how the system works. "I think scientists and engineers are sometimes stereotyped as uncool, and teenage girls generally want to fit in with their peers, so they might feel dissuaded from pursuing STEM degrees and careers," said Kononov. "I'm hoping that interacting with scientists and engineers during the visit changed that perception for them."

The summer immersion program culminated with final projects, shared with family and guests at a graduation ceremony on 11 August. One team, inspired by Kononov's robotics demonstration, created a smartphone app named JunoBot that can remotely control a robot using Bluetooth technology. Another group developed Pocket Kitchen, an app that can be used to generate recipes based on user-inputted ingredients.

As for the GWC organization, its reach is only expanding. On top of the annual summer immersion program, the group already has hundreds of GWC clubs at middle and high schools nationwide. In April, the organization announced the launch of an additional 1500 computer science clubs across the United States, increasing GWC exposure to 40,000 students. "Programs like Girls Who Code give young women a chance to find role models and connect with other students who share their interests," said Day. "Since women are still underrepresented in STEM fields, these opportunities can encourage young women to see themselves in science."

Posted September 2016

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