Helping People

Tech groups encourage kids to code — especially girls

Lucy Oliver, 10, creates art through coding during a CodeArt/Girl Scouts coding workshop at FIU’s main campus on Oct. 21.
Lucy Oliver, 10, creates art through coding during a CodeArt/Girl Scouts coding workshop at FIU’s main campus on Oct. 21. For the Miami Herald

HTML. JavaScript. CSS. Computer coding was a mysterious language to Emma Barragan when she was 10.

“When I first started learning to code, I thought ‘What’s the secret?’ ” she said.

Now at age 13, Emma, has cracked some of the main tech language. Even more, over the past three years, she has learned to turn computer science into a creative endeavor through a local nonprofit called CodeArt.

“I really enjoy it,” said Emma, of Coconut Grove. “I was surprised to see what I could do.”

“Our organization uses art to inspire girls to code and to disrupt the way they view computer science education,” said Amy Renshaw, co-founder and executive director of CodeArt. “If we can help these girls develop these kinds of skills, it can make a real difference in their lives.”

Danica Morissette, 9, creates art through coding during a CodeArt/Girl Scouts Coding workshop at FIU’s main campus on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Alexia Fodere For the Miami Herald

CodeArt is among numerous organizations aiming to inspire and encourage youngsters to learn the necessary skills to fill the jobs of the future. Tech companies are already seeing a shortage of qualified workers.

The U.S. is projected to face a shortage of one million employees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by 2022, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

To help fill this need, educational and advocacy programs are reaching out to kids at increasingly earlier ages, particularly minority and low-income students who might not otherwise be presented with these opportunities. There’s also a growing emphasis on educating girls, who are underrepresented in the computer universe.

While tech jobs are among the fastest growing in the country, women are being left behind, according to research by the nonprofit Girls Who Code, which was formed to “close the gender gap in technology.”

“Less than 20 percent of coders are female,” said Mario Eraso, STEM Outreach / Internships coordinator for the School of Computing and Information Sciences at Florida International University, where he’s the program manager for two Girls Who Code clubs for middle school girls. FIU’s Tech Station is a training ground for a variety of coding education programs.

Eraso noted that hiring women in tech jobs can help lead to more equitable salaries.

“When girls have the opportunity to get jobs right now that are the highest paying jobs for undergraduates right out of college, it helps close that gap,” he said.

Reaching girls at an early age is crucial, computer science experts stress, noting that the biggest drop in interest in technology for girls happens between the ages of 13 to 17.

“A really large drop-off is when girls reach middle school because it may not be cool to take coding,” said Rachel Auslander, 18, a senior at Pine Crest School.

“When I was in middle school I was introduced to coding but I lost interest,” she said. “I had no female role models and no friends who were interested.”

Rachel resumed her interest in coding in high school and saw the need to empower younger girls. “I wanted to have an impact,” she said.

She formed the group, CoderGals, offering computer sessions at area elementary schools, Boys & Girls’ Clubs, community centers and libraries. Her group has reached about 200 girls. With the help of social media, Rachel has expanded CoderGals to 16 states. Classes are taught by female high school mentors.

“We can show girls how coding can connect to their interests,” said Rachel.

Anna Mistele, 16, is finding a way to reach younger girls as well.

“STEM topics are associated with guys, but girls can be just as good as guys,” said Anna.

The 11th-grader said she became hooked on coding when she went to a CodeArt program. Anna now acts as a role model/teacher to younger girls through CodeArt.

When Renshaw joined with Marina Ganopolsky and Lander Basterra to launch CodeArt, they decided to primarily work with girls between fourth and eighth grade. “We use art as an early on-ramp to coding for girls,” said Renshaw, “much like computer games are often an early on-ramp to coding for boys.”

CodeArt holds workshops, including a recent daylong event for girl scouts, parents and troop leaders at FIU. The adult workshop was added to show the advantages of helping and encouraging the girls. “We wanted to talk to them about why there are amazing career opportunities for their daughters.”

CodeArt also recently partnered with SapientRazorfish, a digital marketing firm, on a monthly workshop series for girls in fourth through eighth grade. “In addition to coding instruction, the girls learn about careers each session from SapientRazorfish employees who talk about how they use coding in their jobs.”

There are also coding efforts directed at both boys and girls, particularly in minority and low-income communities.

Felecia Hatcher and her husband Derick Pearson launched the group Code Fever to reach African American and Caribbean youths. “It’s a major need in South Florida,” Hatcher said.

The Miami-based nonprofit works with 10- to-21-year-olds in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. CodeFever will be opening in an Overtown building in mid-November, offering space for minority tech companies.

“Our overall mission is to rid the black community of being an innovation desert,” she said.

The organization also teaches youths about entrepreneurship and startups.

“If we’re only teaching code but not teaching them how to monetize their skills or connect them to a pipeline in the STEM field, then it’s almost pointless to the kid,” said Hatcher. “They need to see where they can fit into the tech world.”

As part of her efforts to reach more low-income, underserved communities, Hatcher also encouraged the group Black Girls Code to set up a chapter in Miami, one of 13 in the U.S., with a 14th in South Africa.

Breakthrough Miami also serves “under-resourced” youths through a series of programs.

“We want them to understand technology so that they can reinvent themselves as the job market changes,” said Lauren Kellner Rudolph, managing program director for Breakthrough Miami, which offers a six-week summer institute, a year-round Saturday school program and several other programs.

Seventy-one percent of new STEM jobs are in computing, but only 8 percent of STEM graduates are in computing, said John Moreno-Escobar, managing director of CodeSkools, an Innovation Florida initiative.

He stressed the need for more computer science classes at all grade levels and the availability of AP (advanced placement) classes in computer science. Only 6.2 percent of Florida high schools offer AP computer science.

To help teach kids those skills, Innovation Florida, Broward County Public Schools, Wyncode Academy and The South Florida Accelerator launched a pilot program over the summer for 17 students ages 16 to 18. It taught coding as well as work-related topics like job interviews and dressing like a professional.

“Every city is heavily invested in sports, but we want to see that same kind of investment in science fairs and technical education,” Hatcher said.

The investment is worth it, said Caroline Barragan, whose daughter blossomed in CodeArt.

“Emma is so shy. She didn’t think she’d be any good at coding,” Barragan said. “CodeArt has given her great confidence.”

A sampling of coding groups

Black Girls Code: The Miami chapter presents quarterly STEM workshops and enrichment programs. There’s a free Women of Color STEM Panel from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 30 at AT&T, 600 NW 79th St., Miami. A Sphero (robotic balls) workshop is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 16 at AT&T (it’s $35, but scholarships are available);

Breakthrough Miami: The program aims to help give under-resourced students access to educational opportunities, including coding;

CodeArt: The Miami-based nonprofit presents the annual Code Art Miami, an event aimed at students, parents, educators and community members interested in the creative possibilities of computer science. The next Code Art Miami event, March 10, is free to K-12 students. The group also runs weekend workshops and CodeHer coding clubs for girls grades 4-12;

CodeFever: The nonprofit features coding and start-up bootcamps, one-day workshops and tech training. CodeFever is offering an eight-week Kitty Hawk Interactive Online Lab sponsored by the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Knight Foundation in November. Check the website for events;

CodeSkools: An initiative of Innovation Florida, CodeSkools presents eight-week computer coding programs for students. It also features segments on interviewing, internships and dressing professionally as well as corporate tours;

Girls Who Code: FIU offers two after-school clubs for middle school girls and hosts the Girls Who Code summer immersion program for rising high school juniors and seniors;