Memphis is the perfect city for a 100 Girls of Code chapter. As a community, Memphis embraces technology and innovation through big companies, a vibrant start-up culture, and everything in between. I’m a relative newcomer to Memphis, and I’ve already been blown away many times when I see the community rally around youth-led fundraisers, food donation centers, neighborhood clean-up, you name it. A program to teach coding to, and foster community with, middle and high-school age girls would fit right in.
So earlier this year, when 100 Girls of Code — a tiny Chattanooga-based program unapologetically determined to achieve gender parity in STEM — was looking for chapter cities, I was thrilled to help put Memphis at the top of the list. We hosted our first free coding workshop in June 2015, and we’ve been rolling ever since. We have a fantastic group of volunteers, mostly computer scientists ourselves, who organize and teach the workshops; and we also have an amazing group of students who come and code with us.
Our motivation behind building this community lies in the numbers. “Women in tech” is a long-standing drumbeat, and an important one. Nearly three-quarters of girls show interest in science and technology when they’re young, but they eventually “drop out of the pipeline” and forgo academic or professional scientific pursuit. What’s most discouraging is that the representation of women in computer science has not improved in the last 40 years. Women today earn 18% of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science, a significant drop-off from the 25% we earned in 1978, the year I was born! I was awarded my computer-science doctorate in 2006, and was one of 307 women with that degree in the entire country (compared to over 1,100 men).
This is where 100 Girls of Code comes in. There are a lot of theories and studies about the representation of women in STEM and how to address it. Obviously, this problem hasn’t been solved. But it’s become increasingly clear that women in STEM are more likely to flourish with the support and encouragement of other women. We need mentors, teachers, and friends. 100 Girls of Code intentionally cultivates a classroom where students can ask questions, look for help, and — very important for a programmer — try things that are likely to fail. The girls in our workshops learn to code, for sure, but they also find kindred spirits and, over time, will build their confidence in coding, math, and science.
Our goals for the Memphis chapter are right up there with the 100 Girls of Code organization: to achieve gender parity in STEM. It’s a towering, ambitious goal, and I love being part of an organization that thinks so big. Here in Memphis, we originally set a goal to introduce 100 girls to coding in 2015, which we’ve reached and exceeded. Being inclusive of the entire community is important for our chapter as well. We purposefully reach out to and include young women of all races and ethnicities, every income scale, and especially those from underserved communities, who may not have access to this kind of education at home or school.
But what we’ve achieved — and as a computer scientist, it pains me to tell you this — cannot be measured. Success happens when girls light up with understanding. When girls make friends with one another and support all the ideas and creativity that fly around the room. When girls build creative and interesting projects. When girls want to study computer science. When girls ask, “What can I do next?”
We’ve hosted 4 Saturday coding workshops since June, and we’ve gone from a “Will anyone come?” anxiety to a “Oh no, we’re overregistered!” delight. More workshops are scheduled for mid-December and early February, with more to come. I’m very grateful to have financial and logistical support for all our workshops from the University of Memphis, the CRISTAL research center, St. Mary’s School, and Rhodes College.
If you’d like to support 100 Girls of Code in Memphis, there are lots of ways you can help, and we’d be happy to have you involved. We’re easy to contact on Facebook if you’re inspired to tackle any of the options below:
- Sponsor a workshop. It doesn’t take much support to make a memorable experience — we always need sponsors to help us with lunch for events, t-shirts, prizes, and printed materials. A person or company who can pitch in $150-200 will support an entire event for 30-40 girls.
- Host a workshop. Space-wise, workshops need a computer lab and Internet access — if you’ve got the space and want to host, let us know! We’re always looking for new locations and neighborhoods to host our workshops.
- Volunteer at an event. We always need more hands! You don’t need to be an expert programmer, as long as you can bring a good spirit and a helping hand.
- Spread the word. We want to reach everyone! Follow our chapter on Facebook and reach out to folks you know when new events are coming up.
2015 has been a fantastic inaugural year for 100 Girls of Code in Memphis, thanks to our amazing volunteers, sponsors, and — of course — students. I’m looking forward to the next year and beyond!
Dr. Elena (Laney) Strange is the director of the 100 Girls of Code Memphis Chapter and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Rhodes College.