A lightbulb moment happened for Jen Shen and one of her co-workers at Springbuk, an Indianapolis-based health analytics startup, during a diversity in technology event. So, instead of just talking about it, they put their idea into action.
In January 2019, they kicked off a Girls Who Code club at Henry W. Longfellow Middle School 28 — a STEM-based IPS school on the city’s eastside.
“During the tech event, we were talking about how it would be great to get girls to start coding to develop those skills earlier,” said Shen, a health economist. “We’re not developers but we know a little bit about code and thought it would’ve been really useful if we had started building those skills and the desire to solve problems and be creative from an earlier age.”
While researching, they stumbled across Girls Who Code, a national program that provides curriculum materials for girls interested in learning coding and building projects using coding skills.
They asked a few friends in STEM to help facilitate, connected to Longfellow through an inside source, and started the club, which meets once a week after school. The 10-week project has about seven members, but Shen believes that number will grow as more students learn about the club.
Students are creating a website that teaches people how to treat animals. Because all of the girls were new to coding, Shen said they’ve introduced the skill using Scratch, a program that teaches the logic of coding.
“It’s fun and more accessible for kids, so that’s what the girls are using and playing with in class,” she said. “Even some of the facilitators are learning as we go.”
Although the club is being pegged as a fun way to introduce girls to coding, Shen takes it seriously because she understands that today’s tech world is still “very Asian, white and male.”
She’s looking to help change that and believes Longfellow is the perfect place to start.
“If you want to increase access for people outside of those groups, it’s not just saying we want to hire more people, but it’s about providing access to those resources early so they can develop the skills early,” said Shen. “I want to make this a great experience for the girls. It’s really amazing to me to see their willingness to learn and do hard things, like building up a coding project, and doing something outside of school that really is very difficult.”
Shen said the girls were really shy in the beginning but became more engaged — especially as activities got more involved and they got to the actual doing part. Overall, she’s impressed with how engaged the girls are and how they’re asking questions.
“They’re clearly very sharp and they really want to do a good job, have fun and learn a new skill.”
Once the 10 weeks ends, Shen hopes the girls will continue to build on the skills they’ve learned. “Not everyone is going to want to continue doing it, but hopefully some will develop a passion for it and continue obsessing over it and building their skills overtime.”
Elda Pena, parent involvement educator at Longfellow, believes the club has been a great experience for the girls because of the hands-on technical experience they are receiving and the relationships being built with the facilitators.
“In partnership with Girls Who Code, Jen and the rest of the facilitators have really built those relationships with our students, and continue to do so, and the girls enjoy coming every Wednesday to the club,” said Pena. “Also, the club is another resource tool, you can say, since they do sign up girls for a scholarship that’s offered through Girls Who Code. The program has a lot to offer.