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Campers Lavinia Dunagan and Maya Hayse prepare for their app pitches. Photos via App Camp.

The big gender gap in the tech industry is well-documented by now. For a variety of reasons, many girls begin to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields when they reach middle and high school. The gap widens even more when students arrive at college and decide their career paths.

That’s why efforts like App Camp for Girls are crucial to help young women stay engaged with tech-related subjects.

The program brought together 14- and 15-year-old girls from Seattle last week to spend five days learning about mobile app creation. On the final day, teams pitched their ideas to women leaders in technology like Moz CEO Sarah Bird and Porch.com CMO Asha Sharma.

Many campers acknowledged that they arrived on Monday fearful of computer programming and unsure of what exactly it entailed. But by the end of the week, as the girls explained how their apps would generate revenue, and the philosophy behind their design choices, their confidence was obvious.

“I was extremely scared before this week, and now, well, it’s still kind of scary — but it seems a little bit easier,” said Lavinia Dunagan, a seventh grader at The Overlake School.

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Campers participate in an ice breaker on Monday.

It’s the latest initiative in the Seattle region designed to engage kids, and specifically girls, with computer science and programming. The University of Washington has been running computer science camps for years as part of its broader outreach program for K-12 education.

App Camp began last year in Portland as the brainchild of Jean MacDonald, a former partner at Mac and iOS development firm Smile Software, who was inspired to start the program after volunteering for Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland. App campers were taught by a team of women volunteers who are familiar with iOS programming, and given iPod Touches for the week so they could build and test their apps.

One goal of App Camp is to eliminate the stereotype of what it means to work in the tech industry. The campers learn that computer programming, while difficult, can also be fun, social, and creative. 

In other words, technology is not just about nerdy boys coding in their basements.

“I think they were surprised at how much fun they had making apps,” MacDonald said. “That’s our goal, really.”

The girls began the week by learning the ways that apps can help users overcome common challenges. From there, they were introduced to Apple’s Xcode developer toolset, and learned how to create different features within an app.

They eventually formed teams and built apps that were all about quizzes. For example, one group came up with a program that tells a user where to travel based on questions they answer. Another recommended the best social media site to use.

In between, the girls enjoyed breaks away from the screens with yoga and hula-hooping. All in all, it was a fun-filled week, designed to teach the future programmers more than just technical skills.

“The biggest thing I learned is that if you persevere, no matter what kind of things you run into — like arguments with teammates, or bugs in your program — if you work hard, then you can do what you want to achieve,” said Maya Hayse, an eighth grader at Pathfinder K-8 school. “It’s what happened to us. At first, we didn’t think we could do this. But in the end our app turned out really well because we worked together and we worked really hard.”

appcamp4girls2Judges and volunteers called the experience invaluable for the girls. Nat Osten, a developer at Smile Software who designed the curriculum for App Camp, explained how she became discouraged in middle and high school from pursuing her interests in technology. It wasn’t so much the boys, Osten said, but rather the lack of a mentor who could encourage her to keep studying subjects like computer science and math.

So instead, she went to college to learn how to paint. Osten said that a program like App Camp would have kept the now-iOS development expert inspired to study her passions after high school.

“It was about the teachers not believing in me,” Osten said. “I think if we can change the gender imbalance, we can get more women interested in coding and we can keep those kids from falling through the cracks.”

Bird, the Moz CEO, noted how important it is to make sure these girls stay interested in STEM-related fields, particularly at this age.

“You have to hit them when they are young enough, and when they still have that interest,” she said. “Then they can build that confidence.”

Porch CMO Sharma agreed, and said the newfound confidence gained by the girls will help the next generation of women pave the way for innovation.

“I’m sure when they grow up, knowing how to code will be table stakes,” she said. “If they have these skills this early, they’ll be able to build something really revolutionary at the right time.”

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