Exago VP Gets Girls Hooked on Code

Jun 11, 2018

Nicole Hitner

Shelton, CT - In response to rising demand for local tech talent, Exago VP Marketing Suzanne Ryan moved to widen the pipeline of future female engineers by helping to establish a chapter of Girls Who Code at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven.

Founded in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code reaches over 90,000 girls across the country through clubs and summer immersion programs aimed at closing the gender gap in technology. Its curriculum teaches girls computer science fundamentals and, explains Ryan, “encourages them to visualize themselves as capable of being members of the STEM community.”

Ryan says the inspiration to become involved in computer science education arose a few years ago during a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company meetup, where executives spoke at length about how Connecticut’s proximity to Boston and New York City was causing a drain of engineering talent from the region.

“There's an opportunity problem, but there's also a pipeline problem,” she points out. “The pipeline isn't being filled with young people who recognize the opportunity available for them in the technology sector.” When Ryan attended Saujani’s lecture at Quinnipiac later that year, Girls Who Code presented itself as an obvious first step towards shoring up Southern Connecticut’s talent pool.

Spring 2018 marked the inaugural semester of Girls Who Code (GWC) at Wilbur Cross High School. The club, hosted and co-facilitated by computer science teacher Lanna Mack, begins each meeting with a short video featuring a woman in tech. After a brief discussion about the video, students work on a collaborative “unplugged” activity designed to teach the logical concepts and skills required of programmers. They then spend the remainder of the session working independently on computer-based projects available through Scratch and Code.org.

The program has attracted a small but loyal group of girls, many of whom say the club helped change the way they think about women in STEM. Sabrina Liang (16) used to think of nerdiness and girliness (which, for her, is strongly tied to heteronormative female fashion and aesthetics) as being mutually exclusive. “Now,” she explains, “it’s like fashion and technology can kinda go together. Some girls come up with ideas because they’re focused on fashion.” With a penchant for all-things-math, Liang aspires to a career in data analysis and is beginning to explore R, a statistical computing language.

Zia Generette (14) especially appreciates the challenge of GWC’s unplugged activities. “We actually use our minds—not using the computer—to do them,” she says. “The computer sets up building blocks for us to work with; but when we do unplugged, we figure it out on our own.”

One student, Solimar Bonilla (16), says she would like future GWC meetings to focus less on pseudo-code and more on programming language instruction, perhaps so she can make headway on her passion project: “I want to make an online version of Uno, but I'm not sure how to exactly.”

For Ryan, the most rewarding thing about co-facilitating GWC has been getting to know the girls. “I expected them to be reserved and aloof, but these adolescents are really engaged and aware,” she says. When one especially shy freshman began smiling and talking in GWC more than she had in any of her classes, Ryan considered it a landmark victory.

Ryan and Mack hope to attract even more students, opening up its membership to boys as well as girls. Mack, who helped found the school’s computer science program four years ago, hopes Girls Who Code will help generate enough student interest in computer programming to warrant a second section of AP Computer Science Principles.

“I'd love to see more students from all over the building, all levels of interest, realize that this is something they could do,” says Mack. “We have a lot of students that come from low-income backgrounds, and many of them see sports, music, arts, performance, and academic study as tickets out. A lot of them don't realize what can be done with computer science.”

 

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