For early participants of Girls Who Code, the program's impact is indelible

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For most of Fiona Liang’s high school career, computer science was not on her radar. She’d maybe heard it mentioned a few times, but she didn’t really know what it was, and that was fine.

But all of that changed in a short seven-week period during the summer of 2014, just before Liang entered her senior year of high school.

A Girls Who Code summer immersion program introduced her to the fundamentals of coding and computer science, and, as she puts it, allowed her to “fall in love with technology and engineering” and encouraged her to pursue a career in a field that remains largely male-dominated. It’s estimated that women make up just 24 percent of the STEM workforce and even less when computer science is broken out individually.

Now a junior at Binghamton University in New York, Liang is studying industrial and systems engineering. Like many other alumnae of Girls Who Code programs, she attributes much of what she’s doing today to that summer crash course in computer science.

And it didn’t just teach her coding languages like JavaScript and Python — though it did that, too. Liang learned about “networking, tech entrepreneurship and facing adversity as a woman in tech,” she told EdScoop. “If you asked me four years ago about what I wanted to do in life, I would have never imagined that I would be here.”

Girls Who Code, now six years old, aims to close the gender gap and increase diversity in the computer science field. The nonprofit recently released its 2017 annual report, which found that entry-level computer science jobs could reach gender parity by 2027. This milestone is attributable, at least in part, to the advocacy work of Girls Who Code — led by founder and CEO Reshma Saujani — and other groups like it.

As of 2017, Girls Who Code had served more than 80,000 girls and now offers more than 5,000 programs. Its summer immersion program, a free seven-week classroom experience located on university campuses or at big tech companies nationwide, and its club program, which meets two hours after school in cities across the country, are just two examples of those programs.

Alumnae of Girls Who Code programs who have since started college have opted to pursue a computer science degree 15 times more often than the national average. Among them are Liang and three of her classmates from the summer 2014 program.

The four women’s exposure to computer science in high school has defined each of their career trajectories. In each case, the program was a conduit for confidence, whether it was sticking with material that seemed intimidating at first, or finding the determination to enter a field that didn’t seem welcoming.

More than a coding bootcamp

Caitlin Stanton is a sophomore at Cornell University studying electrical and computer engineering with a minor in computer science. Stanton completed the seven-week Girls Who Code summer immersion program with Liang when she was a rising high school junior in 2014.

In her classroom, sponsored by Goldman Sachs, she learned computer science basics, including various coding languages, as well as other professional skills.

Stanton said her summer experience was “not just a coding bootcamp,” but an “all-encompassing program.” She was surrounded by dozens of girls her age who were “around the same level as you, technologically speaking.” In other words, most of them had very little or even no experience with computer science and coding.

One of Stanton’s former Girls Who Code classmates, Jennifer Lee, is a freshman at Columbia University pursuing degrees in computer science and English literature.

Lee told EdScoop she had no prior programming or coding experience before the Girls Who Code program. But after that summer, she went on to take AP computer science in high school, saying the experience instilled in her confidence that coding was something she could and even ought to do.

Another classmate, Sabrina Bergsten, is majoring in information systems and technology with minors in computer science and data science at Marist College. Bergsten said that before Girls Who Code, she did not think coding was something she could excel in, let alone enjoy.

According to Bergsten, she did “poorly” in her high school computer science classes. She explained that being the only girl in the class made her self conscious.

“Watching the same group of boys continue to excel in the subject, and having no one like myself to relate to or look up to, I was sure the problem was me,” Bergsten said.

Not your average summer school program

Before Girls Who Code, Stanton had been thinking about pursuing a career in mechanical engineering. Her high school, Stuyvesant High School in New York City, required that students take at least one semester of computer science before graduating.

It was Stanton’s parents, originally, who told her she needed to apply to the summer immersion program.

“The way [computer science] was taught at my high school was not super enthralling,” she said. “So I wasn’t super pumped about doing a seven-week — what I thought at that moment — summer school program.”

Stanton quickly learned she was mistaken about that when it became clear her enthusiastic grad student teacher “wasn’t going to be a traditional lecturer.” Stanton describes the Girls Who Code program as a very welcoming, project-based learning environment.

“Some other girls in the class had had coding experience like I had, but some of them had no experience at all, so it was nice to be in a not-so-intimidating environment,” she said. “Everybody was super supportive.”

An experience not only in coding, but in confidence building

Stanton said she was glad her parents encouraged her to apply. If it weren’t for them, she would not have gotten that jump start to be where she is today, she said. Stanton said she chose to earn a computer science minor instead of a major because she enjoys the apps side of computer science, but not so much the theory.

“The teachers and TAs at Girls Who Code were amazing. I could not have asked for better,” she said. “It was a 1,000 percent positive experience.”

Along with new technical skills, Stanton experienced a lot of personal growth. Prior to the program, she said she wasn’t as outgoing or sure of herself. Over the course of that summer, though, she developed more soft skills, such as giving an elevator pitch and public speaking.

“Because the other girls were so supportive, I started coming out of my shell a bit more,” Stanton said.

Since Stanton and her summer immersion classmates met during their formative high school years, she said it’s nice to meet up now as more confident, accomplished women.

A new community in computer science

There is a big sense of community in Girls Who Code, the women told EdScoop. Some girls in Stanton’s engineering sorority at Cornell — Alpha Omega Epsilon — also did a summer coding program, and even though they weren’t in the same classrooms, Stanton said it feels like they share a special bond because of it.

Stanton said she’s made lasting relationships through Girls Who Code that have provided her internship opportunities. Last summer, she even got to be a GWC Alumni Innovation Fellow. Stanton said it was like “giving back to the program that gave so much” to her.

After her Girls Who Code experience, Stanton said she started doing more tech-heavy internships, participated in more hackathons and even co-founded some of her own hackathons.

Additionally, she’s on the executive board for Women in Computing at Cornell, and she is the founder and president of the university’s colony of Alpha Omega Epsilon.

When it comes to advice for young girls, she said “the earlier, the better.”

“Making sure middle schools and high schools have at least up to AP CS is invaluable, and from there, girls can apply to programs like Girls Who Code,” Stanton said.

Many states are embracing that very idea — that computer science education should be available in middle and high schools. States across the country, including Idaho, Wisconsin, Utah, Virginia and Ohio, have drafted and passed new K-12 education policy to include computer science curriculum. That recent momentum has carried into 2018 with force, as many U.S. governors have thrown their support behind computer science education legislation this year.

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