(TNS) — A local program aimed at encouraging girls to pursue careers in technology and computer programming took another step forward on Friday.

A total of 39 participants from Western New York, including students from Niagara Falls, are taking part in the "It's Your World! Develop It!" sponsored by AT&T with support from the WNY STEM Hub, Buffalo State College and the Girl Scouts of Western New York.

The project partners are hosting the region's first computer coding program exclusively for girls. On Friday, the first part of the program, a coding day camp, concluded with a video address from Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the United States, former tech industry top executive and Buffalo native, congratulating the girls for achieving success in the first part of the program, encouraging them to help bridge the gender gap in the technology sector, which is a major focus of her office and the White House, and for embarking on the exciting journey of learning computer programing.

To celebrate the completion of the first part of the year-long program the girls took part in a demo day on Friday at Buffalo State. Community stakeholders, educators, tech industry professionals, mentors and family members were given a firsthand look at the girls' programing and design projects created during the camp, including animated storyboards, robotic creatures performing animated antics and maneuvering mazes, and their creative web design. The girls were also able to discuss their projects with the attendees and answer questions, while seeking feedback.

The inaugural program includes 39 girls from local urban middle and high schools, including Buffalo Public Schools and Niagara Falls City Schools and various Buffalo area charter schools. Over the next five months, they will gain coding skills and experiences as they become more engaged in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career paths.

Program participant Maria Santos is looking forward to being the first in her family to have a career in computer science. In the meantime, she has plans to change the world through coding, "I want to have my own website and blog so that I can help others make their dreams come true."

Another participant, Iyanna Rogers, had no experience prior to program but has since decided to pursue college studies in game design and work with others to start a coding club at her school, Math Science Technology Preparatory School. "I'm going to be studying this a lot on my own -- going on websites, reading books, doing tutorials — because I want to get a head start for college and learn more about this exciting field."

The program started on July 18 with a two week Coding Day Camp for Girls, also a regional first, at Buffalo State's new $36 million Technology Building, which is home to the college's Computer Information Systems (CIS) Department. Participants learned computer coding basics and will continue throughout the rest of 2016, taking part in education programing after school and on weekends.

The participant's final coding projects will culminate during a "Girls Success Code" recognition event to be held during National Computer Science Education Week in December.

Coding is quickly becoming the new literacy and is the driver of all new digital technology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor, much of the growth in the domestic and global economy will come from STEM-related jobs — a highly lucrative and competitive field. It is estimated by 2020 there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs with more than half made up of computer and coding careers, underscoring the importance of providing the youth the tools and skills necessary to compete in this innovation economy. The urgency for more STEM and computer science educated employees is accentuated by the low percentage of females who are currently employed at major technology firms (29 percent) and women pursuing bachelors' degrees for computer science, just 18 percent.

According to the White House, which has set forth an initiative to increase participation of girls in STEM education and career paths, women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men, and increasing opportunities for women in these fields is an important step towards realizing greater economic success and equality for women across the board.

"We realized the need for a girl coding education program in the region when it became evident that our tactic of introducing girls to computer science professionals and careers in STEM was not having the desired success in capturing their attention and that we needed to do something innovative to engage local girls," said WNY STEM Hub President, Michelle Kavanaugh. "It is undeniable that there is an increasing need for more woman in the robust coding sector and programs like this one, which are common in major tech hubs around the nation.

©2016 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.