To Get Girls Into Coding, Nonprofit Looks to Historic Inspiration

By Lauraine Genota — August 15, 2018 4 min read
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Will Ada Lovelace and Ayanna Howard ever be talked about in schools alongside Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?

A nonprofit called Girls Who Code wants to make it happen. The organization, which works to close the gender gap in technology, has launched a free in-school resource that promotes women’s representation in the industry. The nonprofit organization provides summer immersion and after-school programs, where girls learn about computer science through project-based learning. The company has provided instruction for about 90,000 girls nationwide.

The lesson plans features historic and contemporary women who have made significant contributions in technology, said Corinne Roller, director of advocacy and public policy at Girls Who Code.

Girls who might consider careers in technology-focused fields have few role models, Roller said. The lesson plans aim to change the perception of what coders look like, she said.

“It’s not just Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates,” Roller said. “It’s Ada Lovelace and Ayanna Howard. We want to show women in tech so girls and boys can see that women have always been [in the tech industry].”

Ada Lovelace is often described as the world’s first programmer. In 1843 she translated a description of the analytical engine—the ancestor of the modern computer—and added the first published computer algorithm. Ayanna Howard is a roboticist and the founder of Zyrobotics, a company that builds education learning tools for children with physical limitations.

Thirty-one percent of girls say they never see people like them doing computer science in the media, according to a 2016 Google-Gallup report. Girls are also less likely to participate in computer science learning, and are less likely to be encouraged by teachers and parents to go into computer science, according to the report.

Girls Who Code recieves funding from a wide range of corporations and organizations, including Adobe, Uber, AT&T, the Craig Newman Philanthropies and the Knight Foundation.

Many business interests and philanthropies have taken a strong interest in promoting studies of coding and computer science in schools over the last decade, in the belief that it will help prepare students for the job market and bolster the U.S. economy. Some skeptics have questioned the wisdom of those efforts, saying the studies being promoted teach an overly narrow set of skills, and are aimed at boosting corporations rather than schools and students.

Released in late July, there are five lesson plans available online. Each lesson plan teaches computational thinking concepts through the lens of diverse women, covering topics like robotics, decomposition, user experience, algorithms and the design-build-test cycle.

The lesson plans are multidisciplinary, combining computer science, English-language arts and math, so that they can be integrated into the school day even if the school or district doesn’t have computer science classes, Roller said.

The Women in Technology lesson plans are linked to middle school learning standards, because that is “an important time for girls to be engaged in computer science, so we can continue to drive that interest into high school, college and careers,” Roller said.

Girls who play computer games when they’re young are four times more likely to go into computing or coding roles as adults, according to a joint research report by Accenture and Girls Who Code. They also found that 74 percent of women working in computing were exposed to the subject in middle school.

The first five women featured in the lesson plans are: Ayanna Howard, Ada Lovelace, Nicole Dominguez, a user-interface designer and front-end developer; Vanessa Tostado, who helped develop a mobile app that lets people mark locations that need to be cleaned up; and Miral Kotb, creator of iLuminate, a dance group that performs in programmed light-up suits to create visual illusions.

“We wanted to make sure the women we chose were diverse,” Roller said. The women are of different backgrounds and ages, and their connections to technology and industry are different. Girls Who Code is working on the second round of lesson plans, Roller said.

The nonprofit organization is working with the state of Pennsylvania and the city of New York to bring the lesson plans to teachers into school districts. Roller said Girls Who Code will provide professional development and recommendations on how teachers and districts can integrate it into their curricula.

In Pennsylvania, the Girls Who Code lesson plans will be part of the STEM and computer science online toolkit that the department of education has been working on, said Judd Pittman, the department’s STEM advisor. They will launch the toolkit at their staff conference in December, he said. It’s part of the governor’s $30 million PAsmart initiative to bring more STEM and computer science opportunities to Pennsylvania students.

The lesson plans are “really easy to use,” and is device agnostic so any school district can use it, which made it an attractive resource to add to their toolkit, Pittman said.

“We want to help girls build that STEM and computer science identity, to make sure they see themselves in that space,” he said.

Girls are often told they can do anything, but they need to see “evidence to prove that they can do whatever they want,” Roller said.

Image: A daguerreotype of Ada Lovelace, made about the time she was creating her Notes in the 1840s, taken by Antoine Claudet.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.