Girls Who Code: Training Female Students

By Collin Breaux The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

PANAMA CITY

Computer science is a male-dominated industry, but females are starting to receive recognition for their skills and interest in computer coding.

Madeline Magness, 13, is part of that trend. On a recent Friday afternoon, Madeline was seated in a computer lab at Florida State University Panama City, a robot face complete with eyes and a mouth on her computer screen.

She has been interested in computer science and coding for a while; her father is a software developer. Madeline wants to follow computer coding as a career, possibly mixing forensics and computer science, she said.

Madeline was one of the students who agreed to be a part of FSU Panama City's "Girls Who Code" program, which focuses on teaching computer coding to female students in grades 6-12. This is FSU Panama City's first year has offered the program, which aims to close the gender gap in technology by inspiring girls to pursue computer science, according to GirlsWhoCode.com.

"The main aim is to recruit girls into computer science where they're terribly underrepresented," FSU PC Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) director John Smith said.

Smith sent an email throughout the school system seeking interested students after learning about the program. "We got a good response," he said.

Of the 40 girls who replied to the recruitment, 26 are regular attendees, Smith said. The classes are generally held Friday afternoons and taught by FSU Panama City computer science seniors. The girls get assignments and are helped by the student instructors.

Hana Tabbaa, who is 13 and attends the Panama City Advanced School, heard about the program from her friend's mom. She used to think computer science wasn't important, but the program changed her mind. Through the coding program she learned how to program graphics to appear on a computer screen.

"Coding is important because it teaches you how to handle a computer," Hana said. "It helps you in math."

Even before the program, Hana had experience with coding since she went to a STEM camp, and she may take more coding courses as she gets older, she said.

One of the student instructors is Emily Hennessy. Female presence in coding is important because the field should have wider diversity, said Hennessy, who is the only female student in her FSU Panama City computer science class.

"It's really creative," Hennessy said. "You can do a lot with it." The young girls "like to come here because they get a lot out of it. They can use it."

The program, which costs the students nothing, is expected to run through the academic year, Smith said. He would like to have the program every year, but that depends on the support the school receives, he said.

The class has had female computer programmers from Naval Support Activity Panama City visit and talk with the students, Smith said. Future plans for the class included visiting the Advanced Technology Center at Gulf Coast State College and touring the Navy base.

"Computer related sciences are just infiltrating everywhere we go," Smith said, mentioning computer apps, phone apps and robotics. "Behind that are the people who code."

In 1984, 37 percent of all computer science graduates were women, but today that number is just 18 percent, according to the Girls Who Code website. Twenty percent of Advanced Placement computer science test-takers are female and only 0.4 percent of high school girls express interest in majoring in computer science, the website said.

Girls like Madeline could reverse that trend. She saw coding as important because the world of technology is expanding. "We can be more integrated with technology," Madeline said.

And she said boys weren't the only ones who can be skilled on a computer.

"Girls can do it, too," she said.

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