Code Girls United, a free nonprofit computer science education program for young girls, returns this month following a pandemic-delayed start with an online format for the valley-wide program, as well as in-person programs at Columbia Falls Junior High School and the Boys and Girls Club in Polson.
Founded in 2016 by Marianne Smith, a former engineer for NASA and Lockheed, the program teaches computer science and coding and exposes girls in fourth to eighth grade to the male-dominated field.
“It’s disappointing not to see more women in technology,” Smith said.
But with Code Girls, Smith is working to bring more women into computer science. Studies conducted by Microsoft and other organizations show that girls who were not introduced to computer science before high school are less likely to take classes in high school or college, she said. That’s why Smith has designed the class specifically for middle school-aged girls.
Interest in computers stems from video games, Smith says, which few girls participate in.
“I think naturally boys do computer gaming,” Smith said. “Not that girls don’t, but a majority of gaming is with boys and they have the opportunity to get into programming in a weird way.”
So while boys have a more organic exposure to programming, Smith says one of Code Girls’ missions is to recruit girls at a young age so they are more likely to continue pursuing computer science through high school and college.
Starting at the beginning of the school year, the students begin learning the basics of coding, design work and using App Inventor, a program used to build apps. In January, the girls split into groups to create an app and business plan with market surveys, as if they worked for a software company.
By the end of the school year, the girls will compete in three different competitions, including the nationwide Congressional App Challenge. The Northwest Regional App Challenge was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
Past projects include app developments that help save cutthroat trout, reduce bullying and improving Montanans’ driving skills.
While Smith loves teaching young girls about technology, she says the most fulfilling aspect of her position is watching her students’ self-confidence build throughout the program.
“It’s just a great feeling that I actually found that when I had the girls doing the presentation for their products, on the business side of things, it was more fulfilling,” Smith said. “Especially girls who were really shy.”
Since the Flathead Valley program is virtual this year, Smith will miss the camaraderie of the in-person experience.
“That’s our biggest concern,” Smith said. “Getting the girls to connect with each other.”
Registration is open for all programs. The virtual Flathead program starts Oct. 22, the Columbia Falls Junior High School start date has not been announced yet and a new program in Polson starts Oct. 26 for Polson Boys and Girls Club members.