Hidden Figures no more

by Kidscontent Founder, Claire Comins

When girls at a Marin Teen Girl Conference asked me where they could learn to code and make apps, I found there wasn’t a class offering anything similar nearby. So I found like-minded people to help set one up. And with the movie Hidden Figures celebrating the talents of women engineers hitting the box office this week, it seems like a good time to shout about it.

img_1916Making apps is a great introduction to using tech creatively and purposefully, something I regularly write about and the motivation behind the iPad app inspired by my daughters that I created in 2012. For girls, the most important thing for any activity is that it is social. Coding is perceived as a solitary activity, but this is really not true. The skills needed to make an app are varied and the most successful app proposals I saw in my Technovation Challenge class for teen girls last year were the ones with larger teams that could spread the workload.

Technovation Challenge is a girls-only international app development competition and girls create prototypes of apps that solve community problems. Among the apps proposing original ways to tackle issues such as homelessness and lack of affordable school supplies, girls self-selected their jobs. From leading brainstorming sessions to market research, business planning, branding design and coding, I was impressed by the seriousness with which the girls took to the task – and by the camaraderie that formed in the process.

But although the girls had great ideas, they all needed more help to code their apps. None of these girls had done any coding before – for this age, it’s just not in the school curriculum unless they select it as an elective at high school. By which time, the classes are dominated by boys.

While Technovation Challenge encourages using android-friendly App Inventor to create the prototypes, Marin girls are overwhelming equipped with iPhones. Determined that if I did it again, I would offer a class where girls would build an app for the phone they carry in their pocket, this new class at The Cyber Garage in San Anselmo introduces girls to Apple’s programming language Swift.

cybergaragestock-523031716To deliver a modern curriculum that I knew would appeal to teens, I contacted coding schools who pride themselves on their diversity, and tech startups keen to encourage girls interested in STEM. So far, we have some great mentors – students from makeschool in SF, and developers from Bay Area startups who will be sharing real skills and recent experience. A notable guest speaker and mentor will Redwood Senior Olivia Wong who won the Congressional App Challenge 2016 for her app, Is It Recyclable?

‘I think the reason girls don’t do any computer science classes is because there are literally only guys in the class,’ says Olivia. ‘It’s a recent thing that it’s become so male dominated, but if it keeps going the same way, girls will be too intimidated to do it. I think having more classes that are girls only is a great idea.’

I also chose to offer this class at Marin’s newest makerspace, The Cyber Garage in San Anselmo. Co-founded by mothers and local entrepreneurs Kim Qvale and Nadia Berkowitz, the space is inspiring in itself – well-designed, attractively furnished, and equipped with all the latest technology any aspiring innovator could need.

If girls are going to want to get into STEM anywhere, I think this could be it.

Cyber Garage Co-Founder Kim Qvale agrees it is important for girls to have their own class.

‘At Cyber Garage, the goal is to make girls feel comfortable working with any type of technology and to give them the confidence to take on any design build or engineering challenge,’

‘Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have traditionally been viewed, and unfortunately continue to be viewed, as male-dominated activities,’ adds Kim Qvale.

‘Girls get a lot of pressure to go in different directions, and many girls are afraid of being labeled a “geek”. We want them to feel free to explore whatever it is that interests them in a supportive, collaborative girl only environment.

‘According to the National Council for Women and Information Technology, there will be around 1.4 million computer specialist job openings expected in the US by 2020. Women have the capability to hold 50 percent of those jobs, but in order to get to that point, we need to start preparing them early.’

The Cyber Garage is offering two classes – one for middle and one for high school. As they gain skills, girls in the high school class will have the opportunity to mentor the younger girls. And the students who are also Ambassadors for the Marin Teen Girl Conference will offer a tech workshop at the conference in late March to encourage more girls to start coding. It’s a circle of mentorship that I really hope will put Marin on the map for being THE place where everyone is encouraged to express their ideas through the exciting communication and creative tools of technology.

The first girls-only Introduction to App Development class in the Cyber Garage makerspace in San Anselmo starts Monday January 23rd 2017. Use code FRIEND to take 20% off.

High School Girls Class:

Middle School Girls Class:

Interview with Congressional App Challenge winner Olivia Wong

Marin Teen Girl Conference
Congressional App Challenge
Technovation Challenge

More articles by Claire Comins on girls and STEM/entrepreneurship:

How girls get tech by making apps

Women in STEM and entrepreneurship