My Summer with Girls Who Code!

By Katie Kowalsky | September 16, 2015

This summer, I did a crazy thing: I decided to teach computer programming to high school junior and senior girls in DC.

With every news outlet talking about the diversity problem in tech, I was ecstatic to be in the trenches fixing this problem in the most direct way possible. It kills me knowing that what I love doing (coding with a map emphasis) is a field inherently biased towards young, white, straight males. I’m not saying that those men in the field aren’t building amazing things and products, it’s that a ton of studies and research have shown that diverse companies and teams just work better. Also, if we’re going to improve diversity numbers, we can’t look at the number of women in non-tech roles in a company- we need to look at their IT, engineering, and development teams to get to the real issue. If you want further proof that I care DEEPLY about this, look at my infographic on gender problems in tech. TL;DR: I really care about this issue and was PUMPED to teach for Girls Who Code.

By the way, Girls Who Code is a phenomenal organization. As someone who’s worked for them, I can say that they’re easily the most efficient, well organized non-profit I’ve ever worked with. They focus on two programs, one is the Girls Who Code clubs that are for all girls from 6th to 12th grade and hosted after school in all types of communities in the US and kick ass. I worked for their Summer Immersion Program, that takes only incoming juniors and seniors in high school for a 7 week intensive summer camp that teaches coding. I love that this is how they’re solving the diversity problems in tech: by taking young women who want to do this (every student has to apply for the program) and giving them the tools they need to go to try AP/IB Computer Science at their high schools and hopefully major in CS in college!

As much as I rattled on about loops, booleans, and parameters and taught my class how to code, the experience taught me a lot as well. Here are some of the most important lessons I learned from working at Girls Who Code:

  • Imposter Syndrome sucks. Every one of my students felt this at times. Coding is a very hard thing to learn and it's natural for students who are used to achieving at typical high school subjects to feel like a failure when they keep making mistakes in their code. Transitioning from the high school mindset of failure being bad, we had to spend time getting the girls used to the fact that coding is a series of making mistakes over and over until you get it right (the coder's algorithm I suppose).  When you test your code and there are a ton of errors, it's natural to feel like an imposter. Heck- I have to combat imposter syndrome every day and I've fought tooth and nail to get to where I am in coding. The good news is that unlike my Intro to Programming class in college, we at Girls Who Code spend a lot of time making sure that the students see that every mistake is also another lesson learned.
  • What also helped to combat imposter syndrome and make our class fun and energetic is the type of space we had. I've worked in spaces like this before (the UW Cartography Lab mostly), but I think this was the first time for most of our students to work in an environment where risk is encouraged, mistakes are gonna be made, and every minute of coding can also be a dance party. The energy of our classroom made it so much easier to fight imposter syndrome and teach code. The pressure I've felt in silent programming labs and nervousness I've felt to ask questions is immense. The fact that we had a head teacher and two TAs with 20 people was also immensely helpful. We could easily move around the classroom, checking in with students and helping where needed.
  • Another thing that made my GWC class radically different than my experience with programming in college is the diversity. While we're all women learning to code, every one of my students came from a different background. The economic, racial, geographic, and cultural diversity we had was truly outstanding. I also loved that we had experience levels from 'Never Seen Code' to 'I LOVE JAVA!!', which meant that girls could work together and learn things from one another (the curriculum is also set up so that by Week 3, even AP Computer Science students are learning new material)
  • Something that was really hard to engrain in our students is 'function before form'. I get it- I want to design something BEAUTIFUL before it's even working. Joanne Garlow, the lead developer at NPR talked to us this summer about the 'sashimi' principle. Just like the food, make your product the simplest version of itself. That was something we really stressed when doing final projects which was such a great lesson to learn.
  • To follow up on that last point, I think it's also really important to not only teach the concept of 'function before form' but teach the form part! So many CS programs don't talk about front-end development or interface design. 100% of the reason I'm a cartographer and not strictly a programmer is because I also love design and care about UI/UX. I'm so glad we do a lot of design in HTML/CSS and jQuery to let the girls know that coding isn't just nuts and bolts, it's immensely creative as well.
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