Coding opportunities for girls expanding in Howard

Howard County Times
Opportunities expanding for girls interested in computer science in Howard County

The girls of the How Girls Code club at Fulton Elementary School may only be in second through fifth grade, but last week they were getting a taste of early high school computer science curriculum at Reservoir High School.

Despite the snow — and the fact that there was no school Nov. 26 — about 30 girls in the club participated in a two-hour long session that touched on programming LEGO Mindstorms robots and 3D printing with Reservoir computer science teacher Linda Pchelka.

Screams of 'That was awesome' could be heard as girls moved from classroom to classroom.

The How Girls Code club was started at Fulton last year to provide girls an introduction to coding in a setting without their male counterparts who typically dominate the field in terms of student numbers.

Organized by parents and teachers at Fulton, Katie Egan — one of the founding parents — said they are now in the process of forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, entitled How Girls Code, that will allow them easier access to school facilities to expand the program and make them eligible for grants and other funding opportunities.

Without nonprofit status, Egan and club advisors are unable to request use of school facilities, but they are sponsored by Fulton Elementary and the PTA allowing them to hold the club at Fulton.

"There's no guarantee as we expand that we'll be able to create those partnerships at other schools," Egan said.

Egan said she hopes the club will be able to earn its non-profit status by September 2015.

The school system would be "very supportive" of expanding the coding club to other schools, according to Julie Alonso-Hughes, acting director of the school system's office of instructional technology.

Alonso-Hughes added that HCPSS is cognizant of exposing more students to computer science fields since less than three percent of students elect to study computer science in college yet 60 percent of jobs today are in that field.

Last year, the club attracted 21 girls, but this year participation has jumped to 33, according to Egan.

Sign ups for the club's fall session filled up within 72 hours, she added.

The club meets for ten weeks each semester with sessions focusing on binary code, computational thinking, efficiency with code, loops and conditionals, functions, programming Lego Mindstorms robots, and online programming sites.

To provide opportunities for more students in the spring, Egan said they'll be offering three courses instead of one.

Fulton fifth-grader Caroline Rosenberry is in her first year with the club and joined since her two older brothers and father are all "into computers."

Caroline said it's been "really fun," especially working with Scratch, an online programming tool.

"It's fun to explore, make the character dance and do different moves," she said.

Girls Who Code

The How Girls Code club isn't the only opportunity for girls in Howard County to gain experience in computer programming.

Chris Krupiarz remembers his graduating class at Michigan State in 1989 had about three women in the computer science field compared to 27 men.

Today, he doesn't believe things have changed much since then.

That's why Krupiarz, a member of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Principal Professional Staff, helped coordinate the start of a Girls Who Code program at APL.

"It's really an opportunity, especially now there are so many jobs out there for people who can do computer science, do applications," he said.

The program, open to middle and high school girls across the county, provides them with an opportunity to work with various programming applications throughout the school year. The program follows curriculum established by Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit based in New York that aims to close the gender gap in technology and engineering sectors.

Students meet once a week for two hours from September through February.

This year the program enrolled 20 students and "quickly filled up" after it was announced, Krupiarz said.

"We need to make it clear that computing is fun. It doesn't have to be a scary place to be because it involves a bunch of boys hanging out together," he said. "There is an opportunity for girls to code as well."

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