It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of women in technology, and in Washington state alone there are more than two-dozen organizations trying to boost the number of school-age girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
But few programs are as intensive, comprehensive and affordable as the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program. This month, the seven-week program for high-school girls is wrapping up its fourth year of camps, held in 11 tech-focused cities nationwide. The camps are free.
A recent visit to a session being held at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., found the students armed with soldering irons and hunched over small, robot-shaped pins. The girls were soldering the pin’s wiring and battery in place to make the robot’s LED eyes light up.
Jasmine Dang, a soon-to-be junior, was facing some technical difficulty.
“I kind of ruined mine earlier when I was messing with it,” Dang said, prodding her unlit robot with the iron.
But Dang, who attends Auburn Riverside High School, located south of Seattle, was enjoying the camp nonetheless.
“It’s fun to see what computer science is all about,” she said. “It’s great to get to do this at a young age.”
On that particular day, the girls took a tour of Microsoft’s “Garage” facility — a makers space available to employees. The Garage has equipment for 3D printing, embroidering fabrics, building drones and robotics, and lasers for etching and creating paper cutouts.
“What makes this camp special are the activities they get to do, that they can’t do anywhere else,” said Andrea Lattanner, a Microsoft program manager who coordinates the software company’s participation in the camp.
This summer, Girls Who Code organized six immersion camps in Washington, each hosted by a different tech company. In addition to Microsoft, the other participating businesses are Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Expedia and Groupon.
Nationally, some 1,560 high-school girls who are going into their junior and senior years are participating in 78 programs. The camps are being held in the Seattle area as well as Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.
Each group has different activities, but they include an introduction to some basic coding languages, such as Python, Scratch, HTML, CSS and C++, and the last two weeks of camp are spent on final projects.
The girls have an opportunity to meet and hear from women working in leadership positions at tech companies, and the students are matched up with a female tech mentor. The mentors, who are in their early and mid 20s and work as developers and engineers, can help the students with college applications and career advice. Many of the mentors agree to stay connected with the students well after the camp has ended.
Girls Who Code, a nonprofit, also runs more widespread, after-school coding clubs for girls in grades 6 to 12.
Most of the students at the Microsoft-hosted summer camp said that they previously limited experience with coding and were eager to explore the field.
Fiona Loomis, a home-schooled student from Seattle entering her senior year, was glad to be in an all-girls program. If it had been offered to mixed genders, she figures she would have been one of only a few female students.
“Coding is really intimidating,” she said. “I would have had a harder time if it had been girls and boys.”
Research shows that roughly equal numbers of girls pursue math and science classes during grade-school years. But a recent study shows a huge gender imbalance among college students earning computer-related university degrees. Roughly 15 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. are attained by women.
In the workforce, women held only 25 percent of the computer and mathematics jobs nationwide last year. Twenty years ago, they held 31 percent of those positions, according to a GeekWire analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Girls Who Code, and other efforts locally and across the country, are trying to reverse the downward trends — and initial numbers suggest the programs could be helping. Girls Who Code reports that roughly 90 percent of the girls participating in the summer camp said they planned to major or minor in computer science or a related field.
The camp instructors “really get girls excited about computer science and all the different aspects of computer science education,” said Lattanner. They get the girls to try coding and other technology-related activities, which “takes away the stigma, by trying it and saying, ‘I can do this.’”
The students also said they appreciated the chance to see women working in interesting roles in the field.
“We’ve been introduced to a lot of female role models,” said Kathryn Orr, who is starting her junior year at Lake Stevens High School, located about 40 miles north of Seattle. “If you see them, it’s like, oh yeah, they’re there.”
The girls realized that if they pursue degrees and careers in technology, “I’m not going to be alone,” said Loomis. “There is going to be someone to support you.”