Girls Who Code: How One Teacher Makes a Difference With Early Exposure to Computer Science

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Tucked around a curve of the Tennessee River there’s a private school that’s making waves in the local community to encourage young girls to code.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a private all-girls’ school has made computer science courses a requirement for 6th and 7th graders. This is in great contrast to the way it used to be at Girls Preparatory School (GPS). When Jill Pieritz, the school’s chair of the computer science department, formerly attended GPS, computer science was not offered as a course of study. She wasn’t exposed to it until college, when she became so fascinated and interested, she switched her major from mathematics to computer science.

Now, GPS curriculum includes courses such as introduction to programming, web development, digital makers, engineering, and AP computer science. For Pieritz, it’s a thrill to teach young girls about a discipline she wasn’t even aware of at their age.

“I didn’t know it could be fun. I didn’t know how interesting it could be. I really thought it was a boy’s thing and that it was hard. Now, it’s my favorite thing to break stereotypes and find creative ways to get girls involved so they don’t dismiss [computer science] out of hand,” Pieritz explained.

Several years ago, students came to Pieritz and asked if they could start a computer science club within the school. It was an extracurricular Pieritz never wanted to push on her students, but would happily lead if—and when—students showed interest or initiative. Going strong for six years now, the club gives GPS students a place to learn computer science topics if they’re unable to take courses, and gives other well-versed students a place to explore new and different topics in technology.

Pieritz’s hope is to expose girls to technology early enough so they can determine whether they have a knack or a skill they’d like to pursue. By introducing them to computer science before they get to college, they have a higher likelihood of pursuing a degree in a technological field they may have otherwise overlooked. If they enter college as a novice, she explained, the barriers of entry are oftentimes too high and intimidating.

“I say to the girls all the time, ‘How often are you mad your phone doesn't work a certain way?’ or ‘Does it bother you that Facebook changes where the buttons are?’ If they’re involved in the decisions—if they’re in the room where they’re working on these tools— they can make a difference before the change gets out to the customer,” Pieritz said.

As part of this initiative to increase young girls’ exposure to computer science, GPS’ computer science club has hosted coding workshops that include all local school-age girls. These workshops first began with monthly Saturday morning sessions at the library and later transitioned to day-long events where the girls could really take the time to dive into the subject matter.

Days of Code

This winter, the GPS computer science club developed and hosted a student-run, two-day workshop called “SparkIT”.

SparkIT was made possible by AspireIT grants from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), available to Aspirations in Computing award winners. Every year, GPS students compete for the Aspirations in Computing award in order to set goals in computing and work toward achieving them. This year, McKenzie Frizzell and Anne Marie Bonadio, two seniors at GPS, applied for—and received—the grant and were able to develop the two-day weekend workshop.

“We decided over the summer to apply so that we could host an event that cost more money and was a little more advanced,” said student workshop leader McKenzie Frizzell.

Pieritz was gone on maternity leave when Frizzell and Bonadio applied for the grant. They received the grant and did the planning, with Pieritz returning in January to troubleshoot last minute things.

“I helped with planning and wasn’t even on site with the workshop. These two did a great job taking initiative, planning it out, budgeting, and running the workshop,” Pieritz said. “The students in the club performed the instruction—they stood up front, running the whole event. That’s how we like to run workshops. Not only do we want to make it a great place for others to come and learn about coding, but it’s a great way for our students to feel empowered by their knowledge. It’s like the old saying, ‘you don’t really know something until you teach it to someone else’. This type of event gives them experience, helps them build confidence, and teaches them to be proud of what they know as they share their knowledge with someone else.”

The SparkIT Workshop

Pieritz explained the theme of these workshops are usually determined by the makeup or interest of current members.

With SparkIT, Frizzell and Bonadio decided to focus on building LED necklaces. The instruction was delivered in four parts:

  1. The basics of coding through Code Academy lessons and TinkerCad
  2. 3D printing basics
  3. Arduino circuit boards
  4. Soldering wires and lights onto the circuit board

“We'd made the LED necklaces at an event outside of school before and thought it would be a good project to repeat,” said student workshop leader Anne Marie Bonadino. “We wanted to do projects that would be fun. The LED necklaces turned out great! Each girl was able to successfully solder the pieces together and by the end of the day, they all lit up.”

Frizzell said the girls showed excitement and enthusiasm with the projects, and that there was a good mixture of beginners and experienced coders in attendance at the workshop.

“Many of the girls knew some block-based coding, like scratch, but hadn’t worked with the coding we did. Some girls had never been exposed to coding," said Frizzell.

The majority of attendees were in the middle school age range. Bonadino said she thought the younger students enjoyed speaking with older girls who were also interested in technology and computer science, and they even also questions about high school. 

Both Frizzell and Bonadino intend to pursue careers in computer science. Frizzell is going to New York University in the fall to study computer science, and hopes to pair that course of study with work in the fashion industry. Bonadino plans to major in computer science or computer engineering.

“I am very excited to see where that takes me,” Bonadino said.

What’s Next for Local Girls in Tech

When asked about the possible focus for the next workshop, Pieritz explained that while the actual topic of interest will likely change, the trend of always wanting to help people or solve problems stays constant with this group. All of GPS’ computer science classes are taught from the model of “How can I solve a problem using tech tools available to us?”

“Research shows that girls learn best when learning in context. Girls want to be social, want to help people. There’s a stereotype that computer science is a very male-dominated industry, with a man sitting at a computer by himself. That’s an old stereotype,” Pieritz said. “We try to show we can collaborate, work on projects together, learn to serve other people, put on workshops, and more, and it can all align to what is important to them.”

The club will continue with its mission to give girls opportunities to experience computer science and help them grow if the discover a passion for this growing and changing industry. That is something Pieritz remains very passionate about.

“I think one of the biggest reasons we need more diversity in [the technology] workforce, is because a diverse set of problems needs a diverse set of people to solve them,” Pieritz said. “I’ve heard stories about when voice recognition was first created and the systems wouldn't recognize a woman’s voice. If women are not part of the team working on the solution, the team’s not working outside of their own experiences and knowledge. If the team is diverse, they will find better solutions the first time around.”

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