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Turning Young Girls Into Future Coding Superstars

An intensive camp for budding female programmers and engineers hopes to increase the number of women in the tech world.

Somewhere in Queens, New York City, there is a young Latina girl who likes to take apart computers in her spare time. She doesn’t yet realize that this is a marketable skill, something that could easily lead to future job opportunities. That’s about to change, thanks to an eight-week intensive summer program—dubbed "Girls Who Code"—aimed at turning promising high school girls into tomorrow’s engineering and technology superstars.

Reshma Saujani

Picture a typical computer programmer and a "brogrammer"—described by one Quora user as involving "Lots of red meat, push-ups on one hand, while coding on the other, sunglasses at all times, a tan is important, popped collar is a must. It’s important that you can squash anyone who might call you 'geek’ or 'nerd’ and that you can pick up girls, but also equally important that you know the Star Wars movies by heart, and understand programming ideas, like recursion and inheritance"—might come to mind. It’s a fraternity-like culture that has sprung up largely because of the dearth of female programmers.

Women earn the majority of bachelor degrees in the U.S., but only 24% of females work in technical fields. "Girls and boys at 12 or 13 like math and science the same, but then something shifts. There’s a cultural perception that a coder or engineer looks like a white male," says Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and former New York City Deputy Public Advocate.

So she founded Girls Who Code, a summer program with backing from Twitter, General Electric, Google, and eBay that wants to help close the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) gap by giving high school girls between ages 13 and 17 the opportunity to learn more about what engineering and technology careers have to offer—and by giving them the confidence to pursue their goals.

The New York City program, which kicks off this summer, will have 20 participants, representing all of the city’s boroughs and 12 different ethnicities. "We wanted to focus on girls who didn’t have a lot of access at home or schools that were passionate about technology," says Saujani.

Some—but not all—of the girls, selected from over 100 applicants, have science and technology experience. Many of them already know they want to pursue technical careers, but they don’t realize that they have options beyond being a doctor or a forensic scientist (an oddly popular choice on Girls Who Code applications, probably because of all the forensic scientists seen on shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).

In fact, argues Saujani, these girls can have just as much of an impact by becoming programmers: "Many women don’t pick a job to make money. They pick a job to make a difference. [They should know that] being a coder can help improve water scarcity, or help bring democracy to a country in the Middle East."

The Girls Who Code participants will have a jam-packed summer schedule, with activities planned Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Every week will have a different theme (mobile apps, robotics, entrepreneurship, etc.) and speakers will come talk to the girls every day. Already, Girls Who Code has lecturers like General Electric CMO Beth Comstock, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Gilt Groupe founder Alexis Maybank lined up. Once or twice a week, the participants will take field trips to various tech startups and established companies, including Twitter, Google, Facebook, and General Assembly.

During the final two weeks, the girls will work on their final projects, which will ask them to solve problems using tools they’ve learned during the summer. One example: The girls might be asked identify a challenge in their neighborhood, and develop something—a video game, say, or a mobile app— to address it. The girls will receive feedback and help from their mentors teachers, and at the end of the program, they’ll have the opportunity to showcase their ideas to a group of entrepreneurs and engineers.

This is just the beginning for Girls Who Code. In 2013, Saujani plans to roll out the program in seven to 10 cities in the U.S. "This summer is about perfecting the curriculum, going to funders and saying here’s what works," she says.

Girls Who Code starts with its first class of 20 to 22 participants on July 9th—including the girl from Queens who likes to tear down computers.