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Reshma Saujani created Girls Who Code to help girls get computer savvy (+video)

Growing up, Reshma Saujani was terrified of math and science. Now she makes sure other girls don't miss out on opportunities because of similar fears.

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    Reshma Saujani (r.) and a Girls Who Code participant visit AppNexus, an online advertising company based in New York City.
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In 2010 while campaigning unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress from New York State, Reshma Saujani visited a lot of schools. That gave her a chance to observe the gender gap in technology education. At one school she saw dozens of boys in a robotics classroom, as well as a lone girl in a makeshift computer lab.

“I really saw the technology divide, up close and personal,” says Ms. Saujani, a former deputy public advocate for New York City. Galvanized by a newfound drive to increase opportunities for girls in computer science, she went to work to find a solution.

Two years later Saujani founded Girls Who Code. Its mission is to inspire and educate girls while equipping them with the computing skills they need to pursue 21st-century careers.

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

She has drawn on her own life experiences. “I come from a family of engineers and technical people, [but] I was terrified of math and science growing up,” Saujani concedes. “That fear of math really haunted me my whole life.”

When she became involved in politics and public policy, she wanted to make sure other girls did not miss out on opportunities because of similar apprehensions.

“I didn’t want any girl to feel that insecurity or that lack of confidence,” she says.

Girls Who Code has an ambitious agenda. US Department of Labor projections indicate that there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings by 2020. And anecdotal data suggests some 4.6 million adolescent girls will need a computer science education if women are to occupy half of those jobs, notes Saujani in a recent interview at her offices in New York City.

The goal of the nonprofit Girls Who Code is to reach a good portion of those girls itself – 1 million young women.

One way is through its summer immersion program, an intensive, seven-week session that merges exposure to real-world tech companies with project-based computer science education. Intended to be a one-time pilot program, summer immersion is now in its third year and growing in size and popularity.

For 35 hours each week, teenage girls selected for the competitive program learn about topics from Web design to application development, a different topic each week. They also have the chance to engage with women mentors and participate in field trips to start-up companies, providing them the chance to see how computer science skills are put into practice.

About 380 high school girls in 19 classes in New York, Boston, Miami, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area participated in this summer’s program, which included visits to companies such as Adobe, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter.

A cornerstone of the Girls Who Code program is built on an understanding of how girls learn in regard to computer science education. “Women learn computer science through project-based learning,” Saujani says, as opposed to learning by writing code and memory commands. That realization sparked the creation of the final stage of the program, which involves the girls forming teams and working on their own projects.

These projects have included designing apps to help with such things as choosing a New York City school or losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.

“The most powerful thing is the tools they want to create,” Saujani says. “They want to help, and they want to make their community better – and they want to use technology to do it.”

Alumnae of the program have gone on to pursue computer science degrees, which fulfills one of the hopes of its organizers – that young women will be inspired to learn more after participating.

To date, Girls Who Code has reached nearly 1,000 middle- and high-school girls, and is expecting to work with 3,000 by the end of the year.

“My experience with Girls Who Code has been incredible,” says Adina Walzer, age 16, of Tenafly, N.J., a participant in this summer’s program. “In seven weeks, I’ve learned so many different skills, and not all of them technical.... I feel comfortable giving a presentation on these skills, and applying the skills to solve real problems.”

The popularity of the summer program has revealed a new challenge for Saujani and her team – an ever-increasing demand.
“We have to turn away five girls for every one who is admitted,” she says.

A more recent outgrowth of Girls Who Code are school clubs, currently in 45 locations in New York, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Each week, a volunteer from a company such as Bank of America or Google spends two hours providing instruction to members of the club.

Saujani hopes the clubs will be a way to involve girls who are not able to participate in the summer immersion program.

“We don’t want to turn anybody away,” she says. “We are building a movement, [and] we want to teach everyone.”

Girls shy away from computer science for many reasons. Schools may not offer courses, for example, or girls may have no easy way to learn about technical careers.

Seeing that need gave Girls Who Code a logical starting point. And then it “went viral in a way that we had never expected,” Saujani says. “It wasn’t a novel idea; it was an obvious idea. But it was also a much-needed solution.”

Saujani’s efforts have been noticed outside the United States. Inquiries have come from Mexico, India, China, South Africa, and Australia asking for Girls Who Code to come to their countries.

Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, vice president of partner relations at News Corp, first met Saujani in 2011 as she was still conceptualizing Girls Who Code before its launch. Ms. Grossman-Cohen brought Girls Who Code to the attention of her colleagues and says that they have relished the opportunity to be involved.

“News Corp employees – including staff across the New York City businesses – have loved being a part of the [Girls Who Code] community through our field trips and in our financial support,” she says, adding that she has also enjoyed her own connection to the organization. “My personal involvement has grown over time, too.... It’s been fantastic to watch [Girls Who Code] grow and make such a huge and important impact so quickly.”

She began by reviewing applications for the summer immersion programs, and slowly has increased her involvement.

Saujani’s initiative fills a void, she says.

“Girls Who Code has really been both the megaphone and the microscope to focus attention on the gender imbalance in engineering and computer science,” Grossman-Cohen says. “The world was not talking about or doing much to address this very real issue until Reshma and the team launched the first immersion program a few years ago.”

Roughly 95 percent of the program participants say that they are likely to pursue computer science studies in college, Grossman-Cohen says, compared with just 0.3 percent of their peers. Such strong results, she says, are in good part a result of Saujani’s energy and drive.

“Reshma is incredibly passionate about this work, which is what I think inspires many people to get involved and support the work [Girls Who Code] is doing,” Grossman-Cohen says.

“And it’s clear the girls who go through the program love her, too – they flock to her like a den mother!”

• For more information, visit www.girlswhocode.com.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that help educate girls around the world:

Develop Africa facilitates and establishes meaningful and sustainable development in Africa through capacity building and transformational education. Take action: Buy computers for disadvantaged schools.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Take action: Give a girl a year of computer training.

Operation USA helps communities alleviate the effects of disasters, disease, and poverty throughout the world. Take action: Empower teenage girls in New Orleans.

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