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Girls coding camp helping close the gender gap

WNY STEM is looking to bridge the gender gap in the computer science field. It's why for a second straight year, they are holding The Girls Coding Project in collaboration with AT&T, Girl Scouts of WNY, and SUNY Buffalo State.

Girls between grades 6-12 will take part in the project from July 17-28. While the field currently isn't very diverse, Executive Director of Western New York STEM Cherie Messore said she's excited by the new generation of women taking an interest in coding.

“Opportunities like this encourage girls to pursue technology and math-based careers, knowing that they have the aptitude to do so,” said Messore. “We are so fortunate to have some really quality mentors who participate in this program. The girls are going to learn coding, leadership, and they are going to experience some training in how to pursue this as a career pathway.”

One of those mentors is Buffalo State Associate Professor in Computer Information Systems Barbara Sherman. She was the camp director last year and saw the effect it had on the girls taking part.

“They were all really excited to be there to learn about computing,” said Sherman. “I think that was the biggest thing. Just seeing how excited they were to come in and learn something new every day at the camp.”

Sherman said the girls enjoyed working on small general purpose type computers called Arduino boards.

“They could program by plugging the wires in and providing code for the actual processor that was part of it,” said Sherman. “They were really excited about doing that because that not only gave them experience with coding, but it gave them something physical that they could touch and actually show how there is a relationship between how the hardware is put together and how the software works. They were incredibly excited about doing that.”

One of the most impressive projects from last year led to an app that will provide childcare resources for families.

“Last years group of girl coders picked up on something,” said Messore. “They saw a need and responded to a need that our colleagues from the United Way of Western New York pointed out to them. There is a need for parents in Western New York to learn about affordable child care options. So the girls developed an app that they’re still working on now, that hopefully will be unveiled later this summer. To help parents, at the touch of a finger, affordable and reliable child care in Western New York.”

Sanna Bollbrecht is an eighth grader from Frontier Middle School and said it has been fun overcoming some obstacles since the project started.

“We had to get a website type thing to get the information for the child care places,” said Bollbrecht. “Because we were using the website from New York State, it didn’t want to transfer the information.”

Bollbrecht said she’s finding new friends through the program.

“It was kind of funny. I run track. I actually saw two of the girls that code with me at one of my track meets,” said Bollbrecht. “It was pretty cool to see that the girls that I only got to see once a week or so had the same interests as me.”

Bollbrecht is currently aiming for a technology job in the medical field. She is looking to take the next step in coding this summer.

“I hope for this next session to learn more in depth coding,” said Bollbrecht, “Because most of the coding we’ve been doing, we’ve been using an application where the code has already been made and you just have to drag and drop and there is a lot of typing to code. I’m hoping this summer we can do more of actually writing code.”

AT&T East Region President Marissa Shorenstein said collaborating with Western New York STEM on this hands-on project is key to diversifying their work for the future.

“We’re investing in programs like this so that there is a talent pool out there from which we can choose to ensure our own employees look like our customer base,” said Shorenstein. “Which means diverse gender parity. We obviously, in our own hiring, look very much to ensure we have a diverse set of employees. But the only way to do that is by investing in their education.”

By the year 2020, it's estimated that only 3 percent of the 1.4 million computer science jobs in the United States will be held by women.

“What we’ve seen in the programs we’ve supported like this girls coding project, which is the reason we are doing for another year, is that once these girls have been exposed the sky’s the limit for them," said Shorenstein. "All of these companies would be thrilled to hire these young women once they’ve shown an interest and the capacity to learn these skills.”

Messore said there has been a clear gender gap for a long time in the computer science field.

“You can see that in toy stores,” said Messore. “You walk down the aisle and you see toys that are kind of tech oriented and they are geared to young men. They’re not necessarily geared to young women. Young women are supposed to play dress up or maybe be nurses or teachers. They’re not necessarily geared to at that young age… directed to a job in coding.”

Messore said it helps that more television shows and films are showing women in technology-based fields.

As more women receive early exposure to computer science based projects, new perspectives will come to light. Shorenstein points to the apps being developed by the group of middle and high school girls as proof.

“Their apps really do have real life application,” said Shorenstein. “One of the amazing things about when you give young women these skills is that they always look to solve family issues. They always look to solve issues close to home.”

“The background that they come from can form the type of technology that they want to bring to the world and the issues that they want to solve. That’s why it is so important for companies like ours to have a diverse work force. All of those different opinions and perspectives is what makes the company its best, and it’s what makes the world a better place.”

Classes continue to be added to schools to help prepare students for these evolving skilled jobs. Bollbrecht said she enjoys her computer tech class at school, but this project focuses on a different set of skills.

“This program teaches you more code than the computer tech classes at school,” said Bollbrecht. “With the computer tech classes at school, you learn different things. There’s more drawing and 3D printing.”

“We’re here to help todays learners become the next generation of innovators,” said Messore. “It’s very encouraging when we see more and more women attracted to these tech jobs because that’s where their future is. That’s the future of the Western New York economy too. Looking at these tech opportunities as you see some of the other businesses developing and moving around Western New York.”

About 30 girls will take part in the project over the next couple of weeks.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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