25 Jun, Saturday
64° F



Girls Code Camp a Template Solution to a Big STEM Problem

Provo—The lobby is loud. There are 30-odd girls, ages 8-14, mostly seated at the building’s entrance, waiting for the day camp to begin. Almost without exception, they are moving, talking, fidgeting, dancing, bragging, laughing, yelling. They’re all wearing the same bright blue shirts, and if it weren’t for the ASCII rabbit logo and the sign proclaiming this to be the entrance of InsideSales.com’s yearly Girls Code camp, it could easily pass for some other, perhaps more commonly expected, girls’ day camp.

It’s not the fact that they’re all in the same shirts, or that there’s so many girls all crowded into the lobby waiting for the day to begin—it’s the fact that they’re all comfortable, they all feel like they belong. And, considering they’re at a camp for the subject they’re statistically unlikely to work in, at an age they’re least likely to like it? That’s crucial. Not just for the girls, but for the future of STEM in Utah.

A survey commissioned by Microsoft found that girls retain their interest in STEM subjects until the age of 11—but that by the age of 15, they’ve been completely pushed out of the fields. Societal expectations, stereotypes, peer pressure, as well as lack of mentors and successful examples of women in STEM careers all come together to make many young girls completely lose interest in the subjects, never to return.

Dave Elkington, CEO of InsideSales.com, noticed this when his daughter was eight years old. He visited his young son’s school science fair and noticed that many of the project winners were girls.

“And what’s shocking to me is that by the time [these girls] get into high school, it stops being cool. It frustrated me. I’ve got this daughter, who was eight or nine, and it frustrates me to think that society or peer pressure would limit her ability to be successful,” said Elkington. “So my wife and I talked about sponsoring a girls code camp. We did this camp three years ago and they love it. And they’re really good at it.”

The point, said Elkington, was to find a way to bolster girls and show them that there is a space for them in STEM during that crucial time period where the girls might otherwise be alienated. He said he originally thought of doing the camp for high school girls, but found that by high school, the damage has already been done.

“It’s done by then. They’re done,” said Elkington with a shake of his head. “But you see the excitement of these little girls. To keep that excitement going, I love that idea. Right now, [my daughter] thinks it’s so cool. She comes home and opens her computer and says ‘I’m going to program for a little while.’ But that’s going to go away if we don’t do something about it.”

The Girls Code day camp extends for four days, and in that time, the girls (usually aged 9-12, but there’s a little bit of leeway in either direction) get a chance to learn hands-on coding techniques. They use Code.org and Scratch; they program robots like Lego Mindstorms and Dash and Sphero. They make their own little robots using the motor from electric toothbrushes, decorated with googly eyes. They code little games. They make apps. Each girl chooses a project and sticks to it, and, at the end of the fourth day, presents it to her parents and others.

“It all teaches computational thinking,” said Angela Jones, curriculum director for InsideSales.com’s charitable arm, the Do Good Foundation. Whether the girls go into STEM or not, Jones said, isn’t the issue: they’re learning critical thinking skills that will help them in life, no matter where their studies take them. “It’s breaking down big problems into little steps and being able to examine those steps and see how each one happens.”

Every year, the InsideSales.com team has added more activities, as girls return for their second and third years with the program. This year, the older girls began writing code, which allowed their creativity to flourish even further. Girls Code camp is open to those somehow related to the InsideSales.com company, whether it’s a daughter, a niece, or a close friend’s daughter. Slots fill up fast every year. Elkington laughs that his employees show loyalty to the company partly because employee daughters love the camp so much.

“Candidly, I had one of my team say: ‘There’s times I’m frustrated with the job, and I thought about going somewhere else—but my daughter would never let me,'” laughed Elkington.

It’s not just fluff, either. The girls are genuinely engaged, hard at work at their computers or with their robots. Kinsey Call, age 9, is in her third year of camp. She perched cross-legged on a chair to tell her 12-year-old, first-year companion the intricacies of programming the Dash robot versus the Sphero robot.

“I’m the best at coding in my class,” Call boasted, smiling. “This other boy is mean to me because he’s the smartest boy in my class and the best at math. But I’m the best at coding for sure.”

“I love it,” her companion, Megan Bagley, gushed. “I’m sad because I’m 12 and I can’t come back next year. I’ll be too old.”

Elkington does have some plans up his sleeve for his young alumna—maybe allowing them to come back as volunteer teachers, like Jones’ twin 14-year-old girls do. The twins teach the girls how to program the Lego Mindstorm robots with an iPad, managing to walk a very thin line of teenage indifference and genuine interest in their charge. They go through the programming possibilities, at how the girls can chart the robot’s course, changing its speed or the angle of its turns.

“There’s a lot of trial and error. They’re trying to make it run and they have to go back and forth with it,” one explains. “We used to do [robotics] in school. We used these robots and we did it with our friends, just for fun. Besides,” she pauses, “[Jones is] our mom and we had nothing else to do.”

Elkington said he hopes that his Girls Code camp can serve as a template for other companies to copy. His employees volunteer for the camp, teaching an hour or two a day, and get to mentor the girls. He and his wife have also provided scholarships for girls who end up wanting to major in computer science at BYU, UVU and the University of Utah. As the tech sector grows, workforce issues will only increase as well, said Elkington. And while InsideSales.com invests in teaching children coding through their Kids Code initiative with local schools, he hopes that companies will also help him take the charge in keeping girls interested in STEM.

“If you consider society and the need, the overt need, for more computer scientists or programmers or engineers—and yet we’re ignoring largely half the population? That’s ludicrous,” he said. “If we, as a country, want to continue to innovate? We have to tap the whole population. The more we can help educate people, I think the more we can embrace technology. If we ignore half the population, we’re going to miss something. We’re going to get out-innovated if we don’t do something differently in North America.”