Starting a Girls Who Code Club in Fairfield, Iowa
Girls Who Code (GWC) is an international non-profit organization whose programs educate, equip, and inspire girls with computing skills they’ll need to pursue 21st-century career opportunities. Maharishi School student Shristi Sharma has been a self-taught coder since the 4th grade when she heard about a GWC club that had opened in the local public high school. Even though there were only 3 other kids at the time Shristi says, “It was the first time I had found other girls who were also doing something that I was interested in, and the club became a way of making new friends for me. When the club shut down I was very sad that I couldn’t continue to find this support group. That’s when I asked myself, why can’t I start my own club?”
Shristi found out that you have to be 18 to start a club and at this point, she was only 13 but felt strongly that she had the skill set necessary to teach coding.
“I did something which is pretty uncharacteristic of me. I cold emailed the founder of GWC, Reshma Saujani, who is a huge celebrity in the tech world. I told her how even though I was too young, I had the skill set necessary to start my own club, and that there was a need for it because there wasn’t a single club within a 50-mile radius of Fairfield.”
Shristi’s desire to have a community of female coders, coupled with her exceptional ability to code, got the founder’s attention. She responded to Shristi’s email and gave her the contact person that would help bypass the rule of being 18 to start a club.
“I got to start my club! Our first supervisor was Sophia Blitz who was our math teacher at the time and also had software engineering experience, so it was a lot of fun. Now my co-facilitator is Anne McCollum, a Computer Science professor at Maharishi International University.”
Learning How to Lead
The club not only attracted girls from Maharishi School but some were traveling from surrounding towns to attend, as well as home schools and the local public school.
“I enjoyed meeting people from all around the area, we are open to anyone willing to travel. There’s a saying in the GWC organization, be a guide on the side, not sage on the stage. I took that to heart during my first year of teaching because it’s not about me lecturing them as much as it’s a collaboration. We teach each other and learn together.”
Each year the 6th-12th grade girls have a goal to create a project that benefits the local community in some way, while the 3-5th grade girls learn the fundamentals of computer science. Once they decide on a project they learn the necessary technology to build it.
“The first year we wanted to raise awareness about food insecurity and how much food goes to waste. We made an IOS Apple game, it was very simple. You have a trash can on the bottom of the screen, then there are fruits and hamburgers falling from the sky. The goal is to make sure the fruit doesn’t fall into the trash and every time you lose you’re faced with a statistic or fact about what you can do to decrease food insecurity and increase sustainability.”
“I had never made an IOS app before so I had to teach myself Swift, which is a programming language. Then I had to teach the other girls how to use it as well. We had to get verified and pay a $99 setup fee. Through GWC I learned about how to write grants and how to get funding.”
The Culture of Girls Who Code
For the 18 girls this year, it’s more than just a club. It’s a sisterhood. Not only do they learn complex coding languages but they celebrate holidays, and sometimes throw a party just because they feel like it! Shristi explains, “I’m a big foodie and I like to have snacks at every meeting. I think food brings people together, so every week we have a fun snack. It’s a club and extra circular but it’s become more than that. In GWC you find a group of friends. You meet people who you would never usually talk to. I’ve learned a lot about how to manage and work with different people.”
“The whole reason I’m doing this club is that; I’m a self-taught programmer and I understand how difficult it is to get yourself up and running on your own. I’m doing it because I like coding and I enjoy it, it’s a hobby of mine. As a girl in coding, you’re on a different playing field and it’s not always equal. There’s a lot of discrimination and prejudice. I’ve faced some of that too. GWC is about having a community of female coders that can support each other while learning a challenging subject.”
GWC exists to close that gender gap in the technology profession. Shristi explained that while younger girls are excited and curious about STEM-related fields, that interest is diminished when they become a teenager and are told: “this is not a field for girls, it’s a guy thing.” The whole point of GWC is to overcome this challenge and flip that thinking so more women are normalized in programming.
“We need more women in programming. Especially women of color, because technology has taken over the world. It’s pervasive in every single field, and being able to code and create those technologies is an extremely useful skill to have. It’s also important that we have diversity represented in the room when we’re coding because if we don’t, then we can’t cater to those populations in the end. Products and tools are being made that are not taking into account the female perspective. So that’s why I feel it’s important to emphasize diversity and create an environment for younger girls to thrive. That way they can feel supported enough to pursue this as an actual career opportunity.”
What Shristi learned from GWC
“I’ve had to work with all sorts of girls over the last four years and it’s been amazing for me to open up my bubble. I’m a naturally introverted person. Through GWC I’ve learned to lead in a way that I’m not overpowering others but I’m also not letting things stray off course. Especially with the younger girls because I have to come up with creative lesson plans that are fun and engaging. Taking incredibly difficult concepts and breaking them down into simple step-by-step solutions is a skill I’ve had to learn. That has helped me help them be more interested in what they’re doing and have fun.”
“Because of GWC, I’ve become more confident in my ability to have an impact. For example, there was a girl at the beginning of the year who was ready to give up. I worked through the issue with her and calmed down her frustrations. Once I got her to a successful point with her work, she then turned to her friends to help them out. It was such a powerful moment for me because I helped her and her immediate thought is to then help her friends with the same problem. I love that I can have a domino effect in that way.”
“Moments like that encouraged my participation in interact which is a Rotary club for youth. We do community service projects in Fairfield and internationally. I also joined the Student Council in high school and am president this year, so I’ve taken on a lot of leadership positions. Because of what I learned in GWC, I now enjoy the idea of being able to make small impacts that can snowball and help people on a grander scale.”
Future projects for GWC
This year because of covid the Fairfield community has been missing our “First Friday Artwalks” in the town square. The older GWC club decided that their community impact project this year will be to create a website where local artists can upload what they’ve been doing to an online gallery. The girls will also create a 3D map. This way you can virtually walk around the square and click on all the various shops to see coupons and different ways that you can support local businesses during this time.
Shristi says that the girls are currently learning the necessary skills to be able to create this and she hopes to be finished with it by the end of this school year.
“Through this whole process, we are learning industry-level concepts that real software developers use when they’re working in their companies. The main goal is to go through that process. No matter the end results, no matter how polished or perfect it is, we are proud to have a product that reflects what all that we have learned throughout the year.”
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