Programing for the future

| 17 Dec 2015 | 10:55

At the downtown offices of The Girl Scouts of Greater New York Saturday morning, Najwa Khass, a 15-year-old Girl Scout, peered over the shoulder of a younger scout and scrutinized a line of symbols on a computer screen.

“Make sure you put a semicolon here,” Khass said, pointing at the screen. “Or else the code won't work.”

Khass was among 100 elementary and middle school girls, scout leaders and volunteers from throughout the city dissecting the nuances of computer programming. Working in pairs under the supervision of older scouts like Khass, the scouts edited videos using JavaScript, a common programming language. In a partnership with Vidcode — a new woman-led startup that teaches coding to girls — the event was part of a wider observance of Computer Science Education Week, which encourages girls to pursue careers in science and technology.

Women make up less than a quarter of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, according to the Department of Commerce. The STEM gender gap is particularly prominent in computer science, where women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs. A study by the American Association of Women concluded that the number of female computer scientists in 2013 was nearly the same as it was in 1960.

Correcting those discrepancies means starting early, according to Jill Scibilia, 42, vice president of philanthropy and external relations at GSGNY.

“Girls are not seeing enough female role models in those (STEM) positions. Even though they have equal ability in math and science as boys do. Children are watching us. They're watching adults and they're asking — 'Is this for me?'”, Scibilia said.

To address the scarcity of women in computer science, a number of organizations like Vidcode, Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code have cropped up in recent years in the belief that early exposure and continual encouragement of girls in STEM will help close the gender gap.

Khass became interested in coding after learning the basics in third grade. She's continued to code in school and within the Girl Scouts.

“When you sit there and code, you figure out the things you can do and you get surprised with what you can do,” Khass said. “You learn new things when you code.”

The Vidcode program begins by introducing the scouts to the mechanics of coding language — gradually building skills that allow scouts to manipulate and then write their own lines of codes. The program allows scouts to apply a variety of filters and stylistic effects like text and music to a video. The girls then upload and share their final projects.

The GSGNY's Sara Pooley, 31, guided the scouts through the finer points of programming language.

“For a lot of them this is expanding on what they've learned in school, for some of them they haven't done it at all. A lot of them it's the first time they're seeing code. It just depends on the resources of the school,” Pooley said.

Madeline Brown coded for the first time on Saturday. Along with the other elementary school scouts, her day began with a role-playing activity that emulated communication between a programmer and a computer. Students practiced giving clear specific instructions before tackling the video-coding tutorial.

“It's been going good,” Brown, 10, said about her progress. “I'm already on level six. I've never done it before but it's easy. It makes sense.”

The Girl Scouts of America partners with a variety of science and technology businesses, such as LEGO and Microsoft, to develop programming that engages with STEM subjects. The GSGNY hopes to expand the coding event into an after school program in 2016.

After a morning troubleshooting coding problems, the teenaged scouts eventually withdrew into their mobile phones as the younger girls confidently worked their way through the modules.

“The little girls are catching on,” Khass said.