Code like a Girl

An esteemed group of educators, entrepreneurs, and technologists gathered recently at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy to focus on the ways tech and tech education need to change to be more inclusive of girls and women. 

The school’s unique showcase was organized by Dr. Ellen Fishman, director of Arts and New Media, in collaboration with SCH parent and New York Times bestselling author Miriam Peskowitz.  The evening was inspired by Peskowitz’s newly released Code Like a Girl,  written to get teens started on the adventure of coding with fun projects and step-by-step directions.

Peskowitz kicked off the program by explaining how, after writing The Daring Book for Girls, she had been invited to the White House by Michelle Obama’s staff for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) conference.  Once there, she realized that very little had been written to help address the dearth of women in the STEM arena. By the time she got back to Penn Station in Philly, the idea to write How to Code Like a Girl was born. In order to write the book, Peskowitz actually had to teach herself to code in order to breakdown the skill set for readers. Peskowitz enthuses through the book and in person that coding is “magical... awesome... powerful... lucrative… and really fun!”   

Following the author’s presentation, SCH parent, trustee, and STEM guru Dr. Youngmoo Kim took the podium to launch a panel discussion centered around an alarming trend, one highlighted by a graph looking at a four-decade overview of the share of bachelor’s degrees pursued by women.

Kim, who is the director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, introduced an impressive panel who lent their expertise and voices to the challenges represented by this graph—most notably the sliding orange line representing women in computer science and the risiing, but still too low, blue line representing women in engineering. Panelists were Dr. Michelle Rogers, associate professor, associate department head for Undergraduate Affairs, and director of the Women in Tech Initiative at Drexel University; Morgan Berman, founder and CEO of MilkCrate, a tool for nonprofit program success and reporting; Dr. Vincent Day, program director, computer science & interactive technologies at SCH Academyand owner of VujaDay Creative Digital Agency; Danica Pascavage, Philadelphia outreach manager,Techgirlz, and former technical instructor at IBM and RedHat; Khalia Braswell, presidential future faculty fellow at Temple University and founder of InTech Camp for Girls; and Ashley Turner, founder, Philly Tech Sistas, andacademic strategist, Swarthmore College.

Key takeaways from the guests: “step out of your comfort zone and try something new”… “give kids and college students opportunities to shadow or intern in the tech arena”… “expose young people to coding at an early age”… “learn a new skill by going to a tech conference or try a distance learning class”...  “don’t make learning code elective”… “girls need to see that coding is cool; that being different is also cool”… and, perhaps most importantly: “tech can be used in so many professions and is a place where you can create change, help people and impact the world!” 

Following the panel, guests were treated to a showcase featuring the projects of  seven SCH young women who are making waves in the tech field:

  • Elizabeth Castellanos and Mikayla Brown walked guests through STEAM Squad, their game-based mobile app designed to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEAM.
  • Iris Alex and Kayleigh Northrup demonstrated the prototype they designed called EnviroSense, a smart sensor that sits on top of a trashcan and generates data about its fullness level. With this information,  facility managers can become more effective and efficient at collecting waste. The team plans to beta test the product on trashcans on the SCH campus.
  • Caroline Reitmeyer demonstrated her device—PlanIt—which turns plastic ocean waste into printer filament for 3D printers.
  • Abbi Li and Dominique Regli helped guests drive the robot they have worked with 7th and 8th graders to make for the FIRST tech robot challenge. Regli also demonstrated a programming project currently in progress: an app to identify invasive plants in the Wissahickon.

In closing, while the tech arena at large may be short on women, Ed Glassman, executive director of SCH’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, is proud to share that the school is helping to buck this national trend. He readily points to the fact that 70% of the CEL program’s Capstone Showcase winners are women. (The Capstone is a semester-long sophomore CEL course in which students must develop a venture from concept to prototype.) And this year, 15 out of 18 Venture Accelerator students are girls whose projects involve mobile app development, engineering, and/or coding.  

As Dr. Druggan suggested at the outset of the evening, the fact that learning coding is a part of every SCH student’s academic journey and is non-elective, sets us on the course for important change. Our SCH technologist and author in residence agreed: "Nationally, more girls enter coding and computing classrooms when it is a requirement, not an elective. SCH is on the leading edge," concluded Peskowitz.

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