D.C. GWC classroom / Credit: BSA/GWC

Sara Berrios, soon to be a senior at Westfield School in Chantilly, Va., has always been interested in computers. But when she took a computer science course to learn more about them, she found herself in a sort of “boys’ club,” with just one other girl.

While Sara thought her class was fun, at times it could be uncomfortable because of the massive gender imbalance. “I think for a lot of girls they have the will, but they just don’t have the way,” she said.

Importantly, Sara got connected with Girls Who Code, a New York City-based nonprofit that works to bridge the gender gap when it comes to IT education. “I was lucky enough that Girls Who Code has paved the way for me,” Sara said.

As Victoria Espinel, who heads The Software Alliance trade group, puts it, Girls Who Code “is an inclusive program that celebrates learning new concepts and works to end misconceptions that girls aren’t cut out for STEM learning or careers.”

On Tuesday, I visited the District’s first ever Girls Who Code educational program, sponsored by The Software Alliance (aka BSA), Lockheed Martin and Georgetown University.

“There is so much energy and enthusiasm and eagerness.”

The program is taking place at Georgetown’s impressive Continued Learning center. For seven weeks this summer, adjunct Northern Virginia Community College computer science Professor Tom Gutnick teaches basic coding and programming classes to about 20 high school girls who were selected from a large application pool.

I asked Gutnick how he would compare his experiences teaching college and GWC students. Gutnick smiled before responding, “if my students at the college were these girls, I would be real happy.” The professor explained that while he has some great college students there are some who are not “very motivated” and “don’t do the work.”

“In my classroom here, there may be a bell curve in ability, but there is so much energy and enthusiasm and eagerness — you’ll see it. It’s chaos and anarchy sometimes in there, but a ton of learning is going on,” Gutnick told DC Inno.

Our motto, Gutnick said, is really “no girl left behind.”

The D.C.-based Girls Who Code program is currently in its third week of lessons. During my visit, the girls were completing a lesson on graphic design, JavaScript and basic html coding. Last week, students learned about robotics and how coding skills can influence actions outside of a computer screen.

Gutnick said that, as a professor, he’s always believed that the most valuable moments in his classrooms are those when his students experience an epiphany while struggling with a difficult or complex problem. He said that with GWC it’s all about enabling students to “discover for themselves.”

Though there is an obvious difference between the number of men and women who are leading technology companies and working in the IT field, Gutnick said the issue isn’t a direct topic of conversation between students or faculty in the classroom.

“It is sort of talked about peripherally. People seem to understand that. I mean, it’s certainly part of our mission—to encourage people to study computer science—and we’ve got a lot of guest speakers who come in to reinforce the notion,” he said.

The girls meet with staffers at the Republican Conference Space to talk about technology on Capitol Hill and how to communicate with people in new ways / Credit: BSA/GWC

Last week, The Software alliance arranged a class field trip for one GWC D.C. class to go on Capitol Hill. Led by their professors and a group of GWC program managers, the girls met with congresswomen who advocate for STEM education and have the opportunity to shape policy affecting the next generation of female leaders. The trip included talks with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Senator Tammy Baldwin.

From a student’s perspective

For another student in Mr. Gutnick’s class, Michaun Pierre, her first few weeks as a GWC student are replacing what would have been a summer working a job. Michaun joked, “you know, senior year is expensive,” but she wouldn’t want it any differently.

Michaun is heading into her senior year at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md., where she said computer science classes are not prevalent. “In my school, I believe we have some computer science courses but they’re not widely known. None of the people I have talked to seem to know about them,” she said.

With GWC classes, Michaun told DC Inno that the overall experience feels more “collaborative” than those in her high school. One of the reasons that the experience feels different, she said, is that students at Paint Branch generally feel that they are studying and learning material that will not be applicable after they graduate—i.e., in the real world.

Sara (far left) and Michaun (standing) in class at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies / Credit: GWC/BSA

“I hear from kids who think nothing they learn in high school is applicable. This is a great experience because it shows you direct correlations to how this training can help you in the real world,” Michaun said. “I already start to see the changes in the way I think. It’s more of a logical process. It’s very meticulous—you need to be very detail-oriented.”

I asked Michaun if she had given any thought to what she wanted to study in college, since gradation was just a little over a year away. (Before GWC, Michaun had never taken a computer science course or coded — “it’s been a completely new experience.”)

Before responding, she shuffled forward in her chair with her hands clasped and let out an amiable laugh, “honestly, I am leaning towards computer sciences now.”

Victoria Espinel talks to the girls about her experiences and also introduces a guest speaker, Rich Rothberg, senior vice president, general counsel at Dell — D.C. GWC Program / Credit: GWC/BSA

For Sara, the experience of watching her classmates grow and realize their coding potential — in a hospitable and encouraging environment — has inspired a questioning of the status quo.

With regard to the disparity between men and women in the tech sector, she said she wishes she had an answer for it.

“I wish I knew why Mexico produces more women engineers than the U.S. We’re lagging behind and I think a lot of it is that there isn’t enough encouragement … GWC has paved the way for me. But I don’t think there are enough programs like GWC. The type that really lets you know that being a girl is not a bad thing. Especially in the IT world, there’s a lot more we can offer,” Sara, who is 16, told DC Inno.

Program impact

Espinel, who is CEO of The Software Alliance, said she believes fixing the disparity between the nation’s current demand for programmers and its limited supply of qualified individuals remains important.

Although an estimated 1.2 million computing jobs will be available in 2022, U.S. universities are currently only producing 39 percent of the graduates who will be needed to fill those jobs, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Getting more women involved, she added, will be a crucial element in helping fix the issue.

DC’s first Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program class / Credit: BSA/GWC

In terms of a curriculum for Girls Who Code, the New York office provided DC Inno with a basic outline of the subjects/lessons that the girls will be looking at over the next four weeks (see below).

GWC DC Program Curriculum

As one can see, the program offers a breadth of subject areas and that diversity was specifically designed to give students an introduction to a number of disciplines. The idea being that a wider industry palette for students to choose from offers more opportunities for students to find a tech subject they are interested and/or passionate about.

“Even though they don’t delve into [the subjects] as much as they could, I like that. We have a broad branch of topics we mix and match. It’s a good technique,” Michaun said.

Sara said she agreed, but also added that GWC is helping her develop some non-computer science related skills. “It’s a lot more than just a computer science course. It’s a life course, really,” she said. “It’s given me a handle on how to present myself. How to speak in front of others. How to behave when I am with people who may be intimidating at times.”

Boosting computer science

Emmeline Cardozo, GWC’s D.C.-based programs manager, said that 90 percent of the program’s alums currently in college are pursuing a computer science major or minor (or related technical degree such as electrical engineering). Cardozo added that 94 percent of program participants who have yet to enter college, said they were definitely or more likely to consider majoring or minoring in computer science.

Another lesson that Sara learned from the course, and one that she didn’t think she would pick up from it, is how to better manage her time and to cut back on the “fluff.”

She now believes that everyone can learn something from taking coding courses: “A lot of people say that being a lazy coder isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You find the most efficient way to do things. You cut out the excess. And I think that’s beneficial in absolutely any field.”