High School Girls Learn Computing, Break Barriers with “Girls Who Code”

Woman standing next to a laptop and computer server

The project was called Fish Tank 2.0, and it was a lot harder than its whimsical title might imply. It turns out that creating animated fish—little orange and blue ones that glide gently across a computer screen—requires analysis, patience, attention to detail, and quite a bit of math.

“The trick is—how do you get it to move?” said Sarah Lohmeier, an instructor for Girls Who Code, a nonprofit group supporting girls’ math and science education that is holding a seven-week summer immersion program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. “It’s a shocking amount of geometry.”

For the record, Lohmeier isn’t shocked by geometry. A computer science major at Tulane University, she was frustrated in her first college computer course when she couldn’t get her codes to work. But she persevered, solved those problems, and eventually realized she had a knack for programming.

New Friends—and New Skills

Now Lohmeier and other Girls Who Code staff members are showing 60 junior and senior high school girls that computer science can be a career for them as well. Launched in New York City in 2012, Girls Who Code believes that education and exposure can increase girls’ participation in computing. So far, it has reached 3,860 girls in 29 states.

“It’s exciting for them to meet new friends who share their interests,” said D.C. Program Manager Emmeline Cardozo. “Unfortunately, computer science isn’t necessarily perceived as a cool thing to do when you’re a 16-year-old girl.”

Coolness seemed beside the point one day in Lohmeier’s class as the girls—working alone, in groups of two or more, or with Lohmeier and the other instructors—wrote line upon line of sometimes-maddening computer code.

“If there’s just one semi-colon [out of place] in the code, the program isn’t going to work,” Lohmeier said.

The previous week, Lohmeier’s class designed robots, then had “a robot dance party where all the girls programmed different dance moves into their robots,” Lohmeier said. “I was really impressed and amazed by what they created.”

A Well-Paying Career

A lot has been said about the monetary value of a college education. Over the course of a career, college graduates earn $1 million more on average than those who just graduated from high school, according to a recent report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce at the McCourt School of Public Policy. However, an even bigger disparity is in fields of study: College graduates with the highest-paying majors earn $3.4 million more during their career than those with the lowest-paying majors. And of the 25 highest-paying majors, economics and business economics are the only two that aren’t in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, the report said.

But women continue to be underrepresented in these fields. In 2013, women received 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees, according to a recent report by the American Association of University Women. But they received only 19 percent of the degrees in engineering and 18 percent of those in computer science.

Girls Who Code is trying to change those percentages, one class, one lesson, one coding project a time.

“Beyond the friendship part, my favorite part is when you finally get your code to work,” said Girls Who Code student Naki Franklin, 16, taking a break from classes in SCS’s ground floor atrium. “That’s a good feeling after debugging so much.”