The Girls Who Code meeting didn’t start with a screen saturated with lines of code, a discussion of Python, or a lesson scrawled on a white board.
It began with a story.
“I had a student in my class who was discriminating against another student,” said Dr. Alisha Malloy, professor of computer information systems at North Carolina Central University and the main teacher of the Girls Who Code organization in Durham. “One student said to another: ‘You probably don’t speak English anyway.’”
Malloy recounted how in the class she taught at NCCU, other students had gotten involved in the situation and spoken up for the student being discriminated against.
“Sometimes you can feel like you’re in a difficult situation,” Malloy told the 12 girls. “But go ahead and speak up.”
Girls Who Code is an intensive year-long class where girls in sixth through twelfth grade will get to learn the basics of a coding language called Python, but it is more than just a space for learning technical skills. It is also a place where the girls can foster a sense of community.
At the beginning of each class, Malloy passes around an object and has each girl “check in” — they each must say one thing they struggled with this week, and one thing they want to accomplish in the club.
“Once you’ve checked in, nothing else is going to distract you,” she told them.
Closing the gap
The Girls Who Code Durham chapter is an extension of a national non-profit organization dedicated to equipping girls with computing skills, helping to close the gender gap in technology.
In 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women, but today that number is just 18 percent, according to the Girls Who Code website. Only 0.4 percent of high school girls express an interest in majoring in computer science, the study shows.
The national organization hopes to reach one million girls by 2020, and since beginning in 2012, has served over 3,860 girls in 29 states.
For Malloy, the club is both an opportunity to close that gender gap, and a space for the girls to cultivate leadership skills and build community.
She was first a student at the United States Naval Academy in computer science, but switched into engineering.
Her eventual switch to computer information systems came from her experience in engineering.
The engineers that Malloy interacted with didn’t understand business or the user experience, she said. Their philosophy was “build it and they will come.”
“I saw the disconnect between what we built and how people actually used it,” she said.
As a professor, Malloy saw another disconnect — that between her female students and computer science.
“I’m amazed how few women like to do the tech stuff,” she said. “But I can’t complain at he college level if I’m not willing to step down.”
Malloy said most girls lose interest in math and science in their middle school years — which is why it’s vital to get them resources before they are driven away.
She said one of the main problems she sees in getting girls interested in computer science is that they can’t see how it will help them have an impact on their communities.
“Coding makes an impact,” Malloy said. “And it’s not just for boys.”
In order to help the girls bridge their technical skills with their desire to help their communities, Malloy said there is a project at the end of the course where the girls will pitch community service ideas using the skills they learned.
Malloy also has invited female speakers from tech businesses in the area to talk to the girls, showing them how the technical skills they will learn can be used in the real world.
Community inside and outside the club
The class began with elections, and the girls were called on to volunteer for one of four positions: a president, who would be the spokesperson for the club, a vice president, a secretary, and a treasurer.
At least a couple of girls ran for each position, citing their experiences with other clubs in school or volunteering outside of class.
Meanwhile, a birthday card was passed around for one of the girls, Nia Shields, who had just turned thirteen the day before.
Nia, an eighth-grader at the School for Creative Studies, ended up winning the presidential position.
“I’ll be at meetings constantly,” she said in a phone interview. “And I want to make the club fun…maybe by playing games during break times.”
Nia said she has many family members employed in the computer science field: her father, grandmother, and uncle all being computer programmers. She said she was encouraged by them to join the course.
As for her goals in Girls Who Code, Nia said she wants to make an app, maybe for fashion or clothing design. She said she has been interested in fashion since the fifth grade, and had been a model at 5 years old.
“It was a cool opportunity to be on stage and in front of a lot of people,” she said. “It felt like I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Her classmate, Kiara Leathers, 15, won the secretary position. A 10th-grader at Voyager Academy, Kiara said she wanted to learn how to build a website.
Kiara, an avid volunteer at First Calvary Baptist Church and a Girl Scout, has some ideas for what her community project at the end of the year might be.
“I love singing,” she said. “I never really liked singing in public, but when I sang my first church solo, I felt really great.”
Kiara said she would like to build a website for providing vocal lessons. She said she knows there are people in her church and community who would love to sing, but are shy or may need help.
“Sometimes if someone is having trouble, like getting a note out, I’ll give them a pointer,” she said.
She also has participated in the Legal Eagle Law Camp at NCCU for the past few summers, and is interested in becoming an attorney.
“I want to help make fair decisions for people,” she said.
‘Learn how to learn’
For the next several months, Malloy said she and the girls will learn not only coding skills, but leadership skills, and problem solving skills.
While the girls were sitting at their computers learning the basics of Python, Malloy used code debugging as a way of showing the girls how to problem solve.
“The object is not to be perfect,” she told those girls who were frustrated at not being able to get the code working the first time. “It’s to learn how to learn.”
As the class continued, and the girls progressed through the lesson modules, Malloy encouraged the girls to try asking for help less and seek out their own solutions to the problems they were facing.
At the end of the course, the students checked out once more by passing the pen around, telling what they had struggled with during class, and what they would improve on by the next class.
“Everybody’s human,” Malloy said. “We all have struggles…but how are you going to make it better? Sometimes you want to give up, but you have to keep going.”