Girls Who Code in D.C. show off programming skills to Congress

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When she was a freshman, Nidhi Allani joined her high school’s robotics team. She wanted to join the programming side, but the captain advised her to stick with the group’s public relations arm.

“That was definitely a conflict I faced, but I fought with him until I got into the programming aspect of it,” the 16-year-old, now a senior at Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland, told EdScoop in an interview.

Allani was one of about 20 female students who participated in the Girls Who Code Congressional Hackathon on Tuesday, the culmination of their work over seven weeks with the programming organization, which hosts a free summer immersion program. They learn coding languages like Scratch and Python.

The students worked on laptops provided by Dell at the Business Software Alliance offices in Washington. They split into small teams and, with the help of software engineers from Quorum Analytics, which has the largest repository of legislative data in the District, worked on projects they would show off to members of Congress later on in the day.

For some of the girls, coding wasn’t their first choice for an extracurricular activity.

Jasmine Okebugwu said she was accidentally placed in an introductory computer science course her sophomore year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland – but then she started learning more.

“I fell in love with it,” the 16-year-old junior said. “I started learning about coding and HTML and it was so incredibly cool. I like working with the language and fixing problems.”

Girls Who Code was founded in 2011 by entrepreneur Reshma Saujani, who speaks around the world on the importance of getting girls involved with computer science and coding from a young age. She told EdScoop in an interview earlier this year that she has seen alums of the program go on to Stanford and University of California at Berkeley.

“I didn’t intend to build a movement,” she said then. “I feel like what I’ve learned over the past four years is not that girls aren’t interested in computer science, they don’t know what it is.”

Many of the girls preparing for the hackathon told a similar story – they were one of just a few girls, or sometimes the only girl in their computer science and engineering focused classes. The teacher of this particular Girls Who Code program, Akhira Muhammad, said she had just two female professors when she studied information technology at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I was one of three or four girls in a class of 30, and that was always an issue for me,” Muhammad said. “I’m trying to push girls in a direction where no one helped to push me.”

The 21-year-old teacher added that many of the young women remind her of herself.

“They can call themselves programmers or engineers,” she said. “That’s empowering to see.”

Natalie Arandia Gutierrez, 16, said she felt a thrill from coding.

“My favorite part is that it really took me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I feel like I’m actually doing something. When I finish coding something, and I test it, and it works – that’s my favorite part.”

Reach the reporters at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com and darlene.aderoju@edscoop.com, and follow on Twitter @edscoop_news.

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