The first pilot session for the HackerGrrlz program finished the last week of April and perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised how sad we and the participants were to see it end!
The idea for HackerGrrlz was originated by Terre Chartrand, and was a way to provide solutions to two systemic issues at once: inspiring girls to see tech as something real women do and keep it in their education sights; and encouraging women to stay in tech or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), despite pressures that show they often leave mid-career.
What we hadn’t counted on was just how much the girls would love participating, and how much we’d enjoy helping them learn new skills, opening their eyes up to a whole new world of possibilities that were fun and not just for boys.
I acted as a mentor at Preston Public School, and the first day we had everyone go around the room and share their name and why they wanted to be in HackerGrrlz. In timid voices they shared they wanted to learn to code.
We started them with the Hour of Code puzzles, and everyone chose Minecraft. The puzzles are a great way to get one thinking about steps and tasks, and how to count, the basics for learning to code. Just how many times do you need to add a move forward and place block instruction? When do you add a turn? Soon we needed to move on to a more challenging activity: Scratch.
Scratch has a really inviting interface with a canvas you can draw characters and backdrops in. Many of the girls started to spend a lot of time drawing and not so much “programming” with the drag-and-drop code blocks at first. Until we had them watch a video on creating a game. “That’s when you saw the lights go on,” shared mentor Joelle Curcio, who worked at N.A. McEachern P.S., “they started to get ideas for what they could do.”
As a mentor (at Our Lady of Lourdes), Joan Currie said that it was “neat to see the evolution over six weeks.” YoCWR Campaign Director Stephanie Rozek agreed and shared, “One girl said at the start ‘I’m really bad at math.’ But with every bit of info we gave them their confidence grew.”
The girls who participated were aged 9 to 13 which we found made a big difference in ways we didn’t expect, such as comprehension of what is a website compared to an app or a game? At the schools where there was time to move beyond Scratch to Thimble, Mozilla’s online code editor with sample projects and tutorials, the leap from drag-and-drop code blocks to editing HTML web pages wasn’t always as simple, which we think may be related to the girls’ ages. That’s where we’ll try to approach it differently in the second pilot – framing the discussion so they better understand what they’re working with.
One school group was so advanced Stephanie decided new material was needed. Mentor Sam Campbell developed learning content around the real-world programming language Python.The girls were keen to learn! They started with the Codecademy intro to Python, and then Sam took a cue from the success of the Scratch game and created a Python number guessing game where the girls had to come up with the algorithm. For some girls this became their favourite part of the program, despite the challenges!
The second pilot session starts next week with another amazing group of mentors: programmers, tech team leads, development consultants, educators, grad students, and even one marketer (myself). If you or a woman you know is interested in participating in the fall program, fill out the participation form on our pilot page. Schools are welcome, too.
Many thanks are due to all the amazing women who gave their time as mentors and made a difference to the girls who participated, and to the schools and teachers who helped make it happen. There will be a HackerGrrlz project wall published on this website in the near future for all the girls to see their different projects and share with their parents; be sure to check them out!