Computing Profession

Launching a New Girls Who Code Chapter


This past month, our CS department launched a new Girls Who Code (GWC) chapter. For those unfamiliar with the organization, GWC is an after-school-club outreach that strives to introduce girls in grades 6-12 to computer science, sponsored by 24 tech-related organizations, including Adobe, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Twitter, to name just a few.  The goals include helping girls develop the algorithmic thinking skills that can open up computing-related careers, helping them see how CS is relevant in today’s world, making friends with other girls who are interested in technology, and having fun!

To achieve these goals, GWC provides a project-based curriculum with three levels (beginning, intermediate, and advanced). In each level, the girls use different technologies to complete a series of challenges, each of which introduces one or more new level-appropriate computing concepts (e.g., variables, loops, conditional logic, algorithms, functions, parameters, debugging, markup languages, …). The curriculum is organized by semesters, and in addition to the weekly challenges, the girls work their way through projects each month and semester.

Our new chapter has generated some media coverage (e.g., see here, here, and here), which have led to inquiries from others interested in launching a GWC chapter, so I thought it might be helpful to enumerate the steps needed to launch a chapter:

  1. Find an organization willing to host the meetings.  It should have a space with computers and projection facilities.  A computer lab designed for instruction can work well, whether at a high school, college/university, library, or non-profit organization. In our case, the Calvin College Department of Computer Science is our host organization.

  2. Find a person from that organization willing to serve as the chapter’s advisor.  This person will be the liaison between the chapter and the organization, reserving the space for meetings, arranging for access, and other local logistics.  In our case, I am our chapter’s advisor, so this was easy.

  3. Find one or more instructors. These volunteers must be knowledgeable about software development (i.e., have taken at least 3 college-level CS courses) and are ideally women. In our case, I contacted several of our recent female CS grads who were working locally as software developers. One of them volunteered to be the lead instructor, and she recruited one of her female co-workers to help her.

  4. Find a club president.  This person will complete and submit the online application form for launching a new GWC chapter, and will help to recruit other girls (see #6 below).  She should be a female student (ideally high school, but middle school could work) who is proactive and motivated to learn about technology. In our case, I recruited an outstanding high school junior who had worked for me the previous two summers in our Imaginary Worlds Camps.

  5. Schedule meeting times, in consultation with the instructor(s) and president.  Find a time that is convenient for as many of the participants as possible.  In our case, we chose to meet in the evenings because so many girls participate in other activities (e.g., sports, plays, orchestra, etc.) that are scheduled after school.  The GHC curriculum requires eight hours of contact time per month, so we scheduled our club to meet for two hours each Monday evening.

  6. Publicize the club to recruit students. In our case, we contacted local high schools, companies, community partners, and related outreach efforts (e.g., BitCamp) to spread the word.

In #4 above, I mentioned our Imaginary Worlds Camps, which are one-week computing animation camps I have been directing each July since 2003. While I love doing this, a one-week camp is too short a time to build mentoring relationships with the students: students come for a week, learn some things, and we never see the majority of them again.

One of the most promising things about GWC is its potential to build sustained mentoring relationships between our instructors and these young women.  Compared to a one-week summer camp, I believe that the GWC weekly club format holds much greater potential for mentoring these young women and getting them excited about technology. This potential is what motivated me to launch our new GWC chapter.

It took some time to get our club off the ground: after deciding in summer 2014 to pursue this, I recruited our club president and lead instructor in August.  Then the president had to complete and submit the new chapter application form.  After that was accepted, I had to complete a form outlining my responsibilities as advisor, and our instructor had to successfully complete a qualifying quiz to show GWC that she had the necessary computer science knowledge. After all of the paperwork was completed, GWC approved our new chapter, after which we could decide when to meet, set a launch date, and so on. With those details settled, we began publicizing the chapter and recruiting students.  As this was happening, our instructors worked through instructor-training materials that GWC provides for their curriculum.

With its semester-oriented curriculum, GWC recommends starting new chapters in January or September.  We set our launch date for the second week of January, and our instructors created an online signup form to get some idea of how many girls they could expect (and how many snacks to buy).  Twenty-one girls signed up, and 23 girls showed up for our first meeting! Attendance has since stabilized at about 20. GWC recommends a minimum of five girls for a chapter, and a student:instructor ratio no greater than 20:1.

The girls in our chapter are enjoying themselves immensely, and their parents are very appreciative.  I received this note from a parent the day after our launch:

My girls, surly and whining, didn’t want to go to GWC last night. 2 hours later, smiling, excited, they couldn’t stop talking. "I can’t wait to work more in Scratch, you should see what I made; I think Scratch is already on my computer." Thank you for making this possible.

We think GWC holds life-changing potential for the young women in our chapter.  While we hope some of them will pursue computing-related careers, we believe that the algorithmic thinking skills all of these girls are acquiring through GWC will be beneficial for them no matter what career-path they ultimately choose.

GWC is just one of many organizations seeking to catalyze change.  If you have direct experience with other national organizations that seek to bring greater diversity to our technical workforce, please feel free to leave a comment below and tell us about your experience.  And if you are interested in launching your own GWC chapter, I strongly encourage you to contact GWC and do so.  Good luck!

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