Education

Local Nonprofit Works to Place More Girls in STEM Fields

Code Girls United, which offers hands-on experience in coding, technology and business, expands free online program for young girls

By Skye Lucas
A screenshot of members of Code Girls United on a video conference call. Courtesy image

To date, no girl in Montana has ever taken the AP Computer Science test, according to Code Girls United (CGU). The nonprofit aims to change that. 

Starting the week of Oct. 4, the nonprofit organization, which provides girls opportunities to work with technology, will offer a free coding program for girls in grades 4-8 on Mondays or Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. The yearlong course will teach computer science (CS) as well as competitive analysis concepts. 

The online curriculum will follow other in-person CGU classrooms in the valley. Pandemic-related closures in the Flathead prompted a shift to virtual in 2020. The format’s unexpected success signaled statewide possibilities, and now girls east and west of the Continental Divide can learn how to code.

The yearlong course teaches foundational CS skills and how to create apps with App Inventor. Come spring, participants can enter the Northwest Regional App Challenge where students compete in small groups to identify challenges facing local or global communities and engineer solutions through an app. 

Marianne Smith cofounded CGU in 2016. The group first met after school in the basement of Sykes Diner, with close to 25 attendees. Five years later, coding is still taught after school, but now to 200-plus girls. 

According to a statistic from Girls Who Code, a separate national organization, women’s presence among computer and mathematical scientists declined from 31% to 25% from 1993 to 2010.

Smith believes this trend can be reversed by engaging young girls in computer science at the elementary level and removing negative connotations around women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Fixing the discrepancy means creating opportunities for girls to be exposed to STEM at a young age. For Smith, early exposure is critical for later interest and confidence down the road and inspired her to gear CGU toward girls ages 9-12.

 “Early on, I thought that teaching the technology part would be the most important thing,” Smith said. “The most rewarding part is seeing girls doing their presentations and being confident about sending their work.”

At the end-of-year competition, girls involved in CGU present their semester-long project before a panel of judges, explaining their focus and app product. 

The process of young girls defending their ideas and evaluating customer experience introduces them to the logistics of prototype design, competitive analysis and business plans.

“To say before a panel, ‘this is what we made,’ it teaches these young girls self-confidence,” she said. “A lot of work in STEM takes self-confidence, and I didn’t have that confidence in myself until I was in my 30s.” 

Like Smith, who is an adjunct computer science professor at Flathead Valley Community College, CGU’s other co-founder, Beth Schecher, is a business consultant with over 30 years of technology and business experience. 

When Smith and Schecher entered their respective STEM fields, there were very few women. Thirty years later, the two expected to see a lot more in STEM. 

CS education is not a K-12 educational requirement in Montana. Although school districts in the most populated areas have implemented some sort of STEM program, rural and tribal areas have been left behind and typically don’t have access to such opportunities. Smith believes CGU’s online expansion will reach rural places less likely to see women in STEM or receive female mentorship.

In-person instruction in the valley will take place at local elementary schools at Boys & Girls Club locations. Access to a computer is necessary for students wanting to participate online, although CGU will send an Android phone to remote students so they can utilize App Inventor for the app contest.  

There are still openings for this year’s in-person and online registration. For Smith, the program is a great opportunity for young girls to see if they’re interested in the world of tech, which isn’t limited to coders, but also for designers and organizers. 

CGU is also recruiting more volunteers and accepting applications for new board members. Donations help facilitate the organization’s programming, too. 

Educators looking to get their students involved, interested parents or grandparents, and volunteers can visit codegirlsunited.org.

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