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Indiana Girls Coding Camp Engages Middle Schoolers

This is the fourth year for a free five-week Girls Coding Camp for local middle school girls, which aims to motivate girls through words of encouragement or just by helping them learn a new program.

by Emily Cox, Herald-Times / November 17, 2020

(TNS) — When  Apurva Gadde  was a child, she didn't have the confidence to pursue anything STEM related.

"Growing up in India, I feel like I was exposed to a lot of technology and a lot of code, but I didn't feel like I was good at it," Gadde said. "And I didn't feel like it was good for me or that I was capable of handling it."

But Gadde, now a junior at Indiana University majoring in marketing and public policy analysis, hopes other girls don't feel that way. That's why she got involved in the free five-week Girls Coding Camp for local middle school girls — to motivate girls through words of encouragement or just by helping them learn a new program.

This is the fourth year for the camp that was started by  Diana Nixon , who at the time was a commissioner with the Monroe County Women's Commission and adjunct faculty at Ivy Tech Community College, said  Nichelle Whitney , the project manager. Usually the camp is one week in the summer, but COVID-19 shifted plans and through grant funding from Verizon, the camp was able to be turned into a virtual after school camp.

Women are unanimously underrepresented in tech fields, Whitney said, and as a senior assistant director in the IU Office of Admissions, she's constantly looking at where students are recruited from. When looking at AP testing in high school, only 28% of AP computer science test-takers are female, and that's a significant problem, she said.

"Are girls being exposed to computer science curriculum that would allow them to test out of these things or earn credits at the AP level?" Whitney said. "But then also, is their interest piqued? Do they see themselves represented in the field?"

The computing workforce is made up of 3% African American women, 6% Asian women and 2% is Hispanic women, Whitney said, citing data from Reboot Representation. Based on that data, within the girls coding camp this year there was a Brown Girls Who Code track, Whitney said.

"So they still get the same girls coding camp experience, however, there is a very intentional effort on recruiting and uplifting and empowering brown girls of color to also pursue coding," Whitney said. "And so they have additional mentor opportunities and additional coding instruction opportunities."

During the camp, Mondays were referred to as Monday motivation, a time when girls heard from women in the tech industry or tech adjacent professionals, and through a partnership with IU admissions, they also learned about pre college programs, Whitney said. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the girls were in coding classes, and on "fabulous Fridays," they heard from their college mentors from IU's Center of Excellence for Women & Technology (CEWiT).

Michelle Bartley-Taylor  played an administrative role in helping to plan the programming and getting partners involved. She's a senior associate director at CEWiT and supervises college interns. Twenty five interns were involved in the camp, either on curriculum days or as mentors on Fridays.

The college mentors have focused on various topics on the fabulous Fridays, Bartley-Taylor said. They revolved the conversation around what's relevant to the middle schoolers, such as what to expect in high school, the importance of getting involved in clubs and hobbies and unexpected uses of tech in all kinds of careers. They also discussed unplugging from tech and taking care of oneself, Bartley-Taylor said, knowing that people are spending a lot of time in front of screens during the ongoing pandemic.

"It's not just about the technical skill development," Bartley-Taylor said. "It's about the empowerment, it's about working with mentors, it's about seeing students at a higher level and engaging them with college students. It's really a very comprehensive program, which is one of the reasons I think it's excellent."

The college students enjoy working with the girls because they feel like it makes a difference, Bartley-Taylor said, and they often say they wish they had this kind of opportunity when they were in middle school.

"They talk about how smart these girls are and how quick they're catching on and they see that different than they remember themselves at that age," Bartley-Taylor said.

Gadde was an intern who provided input, helped facilitate discussions and supported the instructor on curriculum days. Gadde said during the camp the girls used the program Scratch from the MIT Media Lab, which is geared toward young people.  Nick LaPlante , a department chair at Ivy Tech Bloomington in the school of IT and one of the primary instructors of the camp, said the program Swift Playgrounds from Apple was also used. The programs used in the camp's curriculum are free and can be found online. During curriculum days, there were 20 minutes of teaching time and 20 minutes where the girls went into breakout rooms to use those skills to work on their projects of creating games, Gadde said.

"For for some of them it was their first time ever really programming, so to see them pick it up so quickly and kind of run with it by week five was really, really great," LaPlante said. "Then a couple of the girls who had done some of this before, kind of stepped up as like class mentors in a way. I would ask a question, they were right there on the ball, had the answer, had the followup questions, and were setting a really great example, so that was really fun to see."

There was a tangible improvement of the girls skills during the camp, Gadde said.

"Something that you can't really measure that I think was impactful to me was how excited a lot of these girls sounded," Gadde said. "We had almost full attendance on most of these days and everybody wanted to come, and they were so excited to be there."

Bartley-Taylor said studies show that involvement in learning technical skills drops off around middle school for girls.

"It's particularly important to encourage them at that point, give them role models, if they can't see what they can become, then they don't," Bartley-Taylor said. "We need more women involved in the pipeline, and it's not just to push them into technical careers, which is great, but just the development and the confidence building that you can do tech, because it doesn't matter what careers these girls end up being involved in, they will need technology to succeed."

The camp was executed through a partnership of the Monroe County Women's Commission, Ivy Tech Community College Bloomington, IU Office of Admissions, CEWiT, Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. Whitney said 40 girls registered for the camp and 21 completed the full five weeks.

"One thing we were particularly proud of doing this year was partnering so formally with the school districts, and the school districts had acknowledged that in many ways, this is filling gaps for them as far as being able to provide opportunities for middle school girls," Whitney said.

Whitney said the partnerships from various sectors to make the camp possible is among the best she's seen happen in Monroe County and she's excited for those to continue.

(c)2020 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


 

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