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Coding for Girls: RHS seniors start educational classes for youth

Léa Payette and Jacia Christiansen help some of the young girls in their class with an activity on the computers at Shannon Park Elementary School. Pictured are, from left, Payette, caroline Shoemaker, Haniyah Rizwan and Christiansen. Michelle Wirth / RiverTown Multimedia

ROSEMOUNT —As two high school girls sitting in a computer science class at Rosemount High School, Jacia Christiansen and Léa Payette were in the minority. They looked around and noticed a major discrepancy between the number of boys and girls taking the class.

According to the National Science Foundation 2015 data, the discrepancy isn't just in high school computer science classes.The female to male ratio in STEM careers in general is one in four.

Having a passion for coding and a desire to see more women in STEM fields, Christiansen and Payette decided to do something about the gender gap. They came up with a curriculum and joined forces with the Community Education to bring Coding for Girls to elementary-aged students.

"At the end of the day it really is about decreasing the gender gap and just showing that equality is possible," Payette said. "I mean, it's about time right?"

Coding for Girls

Coding for Girls is an organization aimed at encouraging girls' interest in technology with the belief that all should have an equal opportunity to explore technology as a future hobby or career. The program is now in three elementary schools, teaching about 25 students and Christiansen and Payette have even hired six more teachers to help out.

Thomas Reinartz, a computer science teacher at RHS, had both Christiansen and Payette in one of his classes. He said he recalls listening to the two of them talk about teaching girls how to code. It eventually got off the ground and he was asked to be a guest speaker. That's when he realized what they had started.

"It wasn't just a two weeks or one week; it was a 10-week operation and I couldn't believe it," Reinartz said.

He saw that there were handouts and lesson plans. There was even a three-ring binder full of the curriculum the girls had built themselves.

"It's rare to see students do something like that right from scratch; build a program right from scratch like that. It's really hard to do and they did it," he said.

Curriculum

The curriculum and lesson plans are targeted toward third- and fourth-graders in a way that is unique to a traditional class. Christiansen said they wanted Coding for Girls to be a fun-filled memory of coding; not something that was dry or thought of as something "just for guys."

Payette said it has been incredible to see the girls in the class learn the same thing she did in high school computer science classes at such a young age. However, according to Christiansen, many of the concepts can be related to everyday things.

For example, Christiansen said the pair taught algorithms with peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. An algorithm is a set of steps for a computer program to accomplish a task.

That's why when some of the students said to put peanut butter on the bread, Christiansen placed the jar of peanut butter on the bread. The girls giggled at the demonstration, but it was important to stress how important it is to be specific because a computer doesn't assume anything.

"It instills the idea that it needs to be specific and if it's not, it doesn't work," she said.

Dancing was another activity in the curriculum used to demonstrate the concept behind nested loops, which can be defined as a loop within a loop. The girls may not always be able to pair the definition with the vocabulary word, but Christiansen said they understand as soon as they talk about the activity they did.

Overall, the curriculum has become both interactive and informative.

"They are learning when they are not trying to learn and that was the whole point of it," Christiansen said.

What's next?

Both Christiansen and Payette will graduate from RHS in May. They didn't want to see Coding for Girls go away, so the two interviewed other high school students to take over the job. They conducted professional interviews and carefully selected the next two girls who will carry on with what they created.

Payette plans to attend the University of Minnesota in the fall with the goal of getting into environmental biology. Christiansen is still waiting to hear back from a few schools before she commits, but she also has been accepted to the University of Minnesota.

Even though the girls will be moving on to college, they plan to return during their winter break so they can help conduct interviews for the next pair of girls who will take over Coding for Girls.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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