MHC pilots coding course for teens

Galen Corey, instructor for the Girls Who Code campus program at Mount Holyoke, with eager students.

By Keely Savoie

Mount Holyoke College is hosting a pilot program this summer to teach the basics of coding to high school girls with little or no computer science experience. The goal of the program, a new offering from Girls Who Code for rising ninth- to 12th-graders, is to spark interest in a population that might not otherwise have an opportunity to explore the field.

“We want this to be a transformative experience that leads them to explore the possibility further in high school and even college,” said Roberto Mugnani, Professional and Graduate Education director of program development.

A chief inspiration behind the national nonprofit Girls Who Code is the underrepresentation of girls (and women) in computer science. In 1984, when computers were a relatively new phenomenon, 37 percent of all computer science graduates were women; now it is only 16 percent.

Girls Who Code previously offered two main programs nationally: an after-school club during the academic year and a seven-week summer immersion program. Both have been tremendous successes, with 65 percent of the club students and 93 percent of the summer immersion students expressing interest in pursuing computer science in college.

Because the new campus program is run in partnership with educational institutions across the country, it is accessible to a larger population of girls than the club and immersion programs that are tied geographically to the companies that sponsor them. What’s more, the program targets younger girls, an important demographic because the older girls get, the more they seem to turn away from computer science. Whereas two-thirds of 6- to 12-year-olds are interested in computer science, only 4 percent of college-age women are.

The campus program teaches students the basics of coding in Scratch, a simple coding language, as well as javascript, CSS, HTML and web development. The two-week program is long enough, said Jana Chandler-Ligon of Girls Who Code, to foster sisterhood and collaboration among its participants — both important for building confidence and continued interest.

Teaching Assistant Nicole Andrews ’19, a computer science major, hopes to spark a latent interest in computer science that can serve students throughout their lives. Andrews had no interest in computer science or coding until she happened to take an introductory course in her first year at Mount Holyoke.

“There are so many amazing things you can do with computer science,” she said. “It’s a really good option for creating things and thinking in a new way. It has applications in many fields, no matter what you want to do.”

The skills themselves are just one aspect of the class, said Galen Corey, the instructor. “I think one of the main things is that it teaches academic bravery,” she said. “It teaches the students to push past the static thinking that if something doesn’t come easily they are not meant to do it.”

This is the pilot year for Girls Who Code on the Mount Holyoke campus, but Mugnani hopes that it is the beginning of a long partnership.

“We both share the same mission, to educate and prepare girls for success in a dynamic world. I hope that we can partner with Girls Who Code next year, as it allows us to extend our reach into the local community, and offers students a chance to get to know our campus and develop skills they will be able to carry forth no matter what they do in the future,” Mugnani said.

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