We’re sitting in a basement room in the Capitol Visitors Center, waiting on some members of Congress. It’s a busy day in the House, apparently.
Twenty high school girls (rising juniors and seniors) sit in front of me, fidgeting a little and Snapchatting a lot. Today is the “congressional hackathon” in the Girls Who Code summer immersion program, and these 20 girls are from the BSA-sponsored classroom taking on this particular challenge. (BSA | The Software Alliance is a global advocacy group for the software industry.) The challenge sees the girls working during the morning to put together projects to address challenges highlighted by those still-missing members of Congress.
After some instruction from members of the Quorum Analytics team and only about two hours of actual coding, it’s time for the girls to present their work.
The Girls Who Code summer immersion program is an intense seven-week-long summer course — it’s immersive, as the name suggests. Teachers and students at the BSA classroom (one of several in the region — all in all there are 120 girls participating in the program this summer) told me the program focuses on teaching a different language or skill each week.
Each of the girls comes in with a different level of experience in the area — some I spoke with talked passionately about their intentions to study computer science, while others simply said they’d joined the program as a “way to learn something new.” I’m not entirely sure “learning something new” could have enticed me, at age 17, to devote 7 weeks of my summer to coding. Kids these days.
However, despite the diversity the girls represent, there’s a convivial atmosphere in the room the second time I meet them — back in the classroom during robotics week. I watch as one girl in each group completes the breadboard and her teammates (all tasked with different parts of assembly) add their thoughts. There’s a nearly constant stream of conversation at each table, girls asking and answering their own questions out loud, helping each other with challenging bits and making jokes.
The girls seem comfortable — more comfortable, several girls tell me, than they would be in a robotics club or CS class back at school where the majority of their classmates are male.
In fact, the girls also spoke to the gender divide in tech during the congressional hackathon, where one team used the Quorum API to compare congressional reports that mention “STEM” versus congressional reports that mention “women in STEM.” (Spoiler: there were fewer of the latter.) Other groups looked at trends in congressional productivity and made wordclouds based on a representative’s public statements. The projects were simple, yes, but impressive given the short time the girls spent working.
Now the summer is almost over for these girls who code — the program ends on Aug. 10. Before completion, though, each participant will create a final passion project utilizing her new skills. Ideas for the projects (on the day I visited the classroom) ranged from “make an app that can detect your emotion and pick songs for you to listen to,” to “create a new font with my own handwriting” and much more.
World, meet the next generation in tech.