Computer science? It's a girls' club

 Eighteen high school girls, ranging from freshmen to juniors, make up Ridgefield’s Girls Who Code chapter that meets at the library every Tuesday night for two hours. The club is led by Kimberly Sauter and Mary Beth Rassulo. —Steve Coulter

Eighteen high school girls, ranging from freshmen to juniors, make up Ridgefield’s Girls Who Code chapter that meets at the library every Tuesday night for two hours. The club is led by Kimberly Sauter and Mary Beth Rassulo. —Steve Coulter

Generative art, video games and mobile apps are the fields being discovered at Ridgefield’s Girls Who Code chapter every Tuesday night in the Donofrio Technology Center at the Ridgefield Library.

The club, which is part of a national organization, began meeting in October and has 18 female students ranging from freshmen to juniors in high school.

There was a lot of interest.

“Thirty applied, but the Girls Who Code organization has a 20-person limit per chapter,” said Kimberly Sauter, who runs the program as a volunteer.

She first started to think about founding a chapter after meeting the club’s student ambassador, Kate Lindenburg, at one of library’s “Hour of Code” technology celebrations in December 2013.

“We got to talking about the lack of exposure to computer science that I had at that point in my life and from there we put our heads together to make it work here in town,” recalled Kate, a junior at Ridgefield High School. “I’ve been completely on board and loving it ever since.”

Girls Who Code programs — 220 clubs across 25 states — work to inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue opportunities in a technology-driven world through pairing intensive instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development with mentorship and exposure led by the industry’s top female engineers and entrepreneurs

The organization envisions reaching gender parity in computing field by providing computer science education and exposure to a million young women by 2020.

However, that mission is a lot easier said than done in an industry dominated by male programmers and engineers.

“It’s not difficult to get a job,” said Ms. Sauter, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Michigan. “It’s difficult to get them interested to want to get jobs — that’s the problem.

“Girls are not going into computer science.”

In fact, at the library’s “The Real Face of IT” panel discussion on Feb. 7, Ms. Sauter highlighted that issue when she posed the question: “What do you think of when I say computer programmer?”

“It’s a male sitting behind a computer, being anti-social and probably downing an energy drink — and that’s what it’s going to be,” she said.

“But it doesn’t have to be,” she added. “It looks like me and it looks like the women that sat up there on the panel and the girls who sat listening to them in the audience…

“That was the driving force of the panel and it was such a wonderful opportunity for them to see these role models and these dynamic women because they don’t see it in movies and TV and everyday life.”

Why do you code?

Listening to the club’s 18 high school members, there a variety of reasons why they chose to join the club when Ridgefield received its confirmation from the national Girls Who Code program in September.

“I joined because I had no idea what coding was,” said RHS junior Claire Condron. “Once I joined it really opened my mind to all the different aspects of what you can do, from creating your own website to designing your own app.”

That interest in creating is a common factor among the club members, but the eclectic group has a wide range of motivations — and backgrounds.

“I’ve always been interested in computer science so I thought this would be a good place to figure out the next steps I want to take before college,” said  junior Jordan Roth.

“I’ve always enjoyed math and science, so my mom thought this would be a good club for me,” added freshman Elizabeth Schroppe.

Not every member of the club is a “math and science” type.

“I’m much more of a humanities person,” said junior Claire Phelan. “I figured why not be more well-rounded and give science and technology more of a go.

“And now I realized you don’t need to be afraid of math and science,” she added. “They can help you do a lot of cool things.”

Apprehensiveness was a shared feeling five months ago when the club launched with an introduction class that featured an ice-breaker discussion about why each of them was there.

“At first, I wasn’t too sure,” said junior Kimberlee Gordon, who is home schooled. “But I liked computers and the coding part sounded interesting and I like it now and look forward to coming here.”

“All the girls took a pre-class survey and what we found was that the  majority of girls had absolutely zero experience with computers,” Ms. Sauter added. “

“They all saw it has a great opportunity to explore computer science and they’re all very passionate about it, which is exciting.”

Feedback and growth

Every week since the girls have been providing Ms. Sauter and the club’s advisor Mary Beth Rassulo, who is the Ridgefield Library’s children’s services librarian, with feedback about what they like and what they’d like to see happen next.

So far, so good — the open line of communication has the program shifting gears from the starter programming platform Scratch to a more advanced hub called Codesters.

“Other chapters have used it but we’re part of a pilot program from the larger Girls Who Code organization,” Ms. Rassulo said.

“They’re similar programs but now we’re getting into more of the syntax of coding,” Ms. Sauter added.

“They give us   the curriculum and it includes a lot of hands-on activities and labs.”

Commitment

The club meets every week for two hours.

Ms. Sauter said the commitment level from all the girls has been her favorite part of teaching the group.

It’s a very big commitment,” she said. “It’s truly another class for them.”

Although she has taught STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — at the preschool and elementary school level, Ms. Sauter said that teaching the subject of computer science to high schoolers was “a whole new world.”

“It was interesting in the beginning because this was new for me,” she said. “But the girls are just so fantastic…

“They want to be here and they’re so passionate and  curious,” she added. “When you see the light go on, it’s so exciting — it makes all of this very worthwhile.”

Generous donors

Ms. Rassulo credits the Donofrio family for making the club — and events like the panel discussion, which was co-sponsored by the library, Ridgefield Public Schools, and the Ridgefield Education Foundation — possible.

“Mr. and Mrs. Donofrio’s passion is exposing girls to STEM and to technology in particular,” she said. “Nick Donofrio gave a very passionate speech at the end of the Hour of Code celebration event and it was all about the importance of exposing girls to computer programming.”

“Not all of the speakers were computer science majors,” added Ms. Sauter. “Some had traditional paths; some were varied, but it was all very inspiring and life-changing.”

Path to success

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings by 2020.

“To reach gender parity by 2020, women must fill half of these positions, or 700,000 computing jobs,” reads Girls Who Code’s mission statement.

“Anecdotal data tells us that an average of 30% of those students with exposure to computer science will continue in the field. This means that 4.6-million adolescent girls will require some form of exposure to computer science education to realize gender parity in 2020.

“Girls Who Code has set out to reach 25% of those young women needed to realize gender parity.

Giving back

While bridging the gender parity gap is a goal, the Ridgefield group has a special, local mission — giving back to the community through whatever final project it decides to create.

“We haven’t talked about it yet but it will benefit the town and that will really make it come full circle,” said Ms. Sauter.

She recalled a computer science class she took in high school that sparked her interest and set her on the path that she’s still on today.

It’s an extremely creative field,” she said. “You have an idea and you implement it and you see it come to life and maybe someone uses what you’ve done…

“For me that’s really exciting — that’s what makes it fun.”

For more information about the national program, go to girlswhocode.com

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