CoderDojoGirls is celebrating its first birthday. Mentors Sarah Doran and Niambh Scullion told Claire O’Connell what they have learned about getting girls coding.
First birthdays are always special, and one at the end of this month is no exception. But this time rather than a cheery toddler blowing out the birthday candles, it’s a girls-only coding initiative that started at Dublin City University (DCU) last April.
Mentors Sarah Doran, Niambh Scullion and Noel King decided to try something new. They introduced a session each week that was more tailored for girls. So, a year later, with a regular ‘core’ of girl coders attending each week and and more signing up, what have the mentors learned?
Confidence is the big issue, according to Doran, who works at Applied Intelligence, BAE Systems.
“My No 1 piece of advice is to encourage girls to be confident,” Doran says. “By writing a single word of code they have already kicked the odds! Too many kids will grow up never understanding how websites or apps are created. One of the cool things about learning to code is that mistakes are good. Forgetting a semi-colon here and a bracket there will all stand to enhance their understanding of how code works. We always say ‘don’t be afraid to break it’, our mentors are there to put it back together again. It’s all part of the fun.”
And the approach of bringing girls together in a single CoderDojo session each week seems to be building up confidence within the group, according to Doran, who has seen a transformation.
“Initially, we had a class of very quiet girls,” she recalls. “I used to tempt them with swag like CoderDojo stickers in return for answering questions. But a year later, the girls are working on entering projects in the CoderDojo Coolest Project Awards and their increased confidence amazes me.”
One of the secrets of their success has been to encourage female mentors to get involved, reckons Doran.
“We reached out to other women in the tech industry in Dublin. We received so much support that now we have as many women as men volunteering across all sessions in DCU,” Doran says. “And three of the girls (Catrina, Vanessa and Niamh) from the advanced CoderDojo class are now volunteer mentors for the girls’ session. They have been a huge help in the last 12 months and all three have recently released apps on the Android market. We couldn’t have dreamed up better role models for the girls.”
Doran also likes to let the girl coders put their own spin on their creations, and makes time for them to do so.
“I think its important to appeal to their creative interests,” she says. “In general, most girls love designing so I like to keep the last half hour of the class solely for letting them put their own stamp on the web game or app that I’m teaching.”
CoderDojoGirls kicks off at Dublin City University last year. Photo by Nick Bradshaw
Asking the right questions
Doran and Scullion, who works at IBM, emphasise the importance of talking to the girl coders individually, and there’s also a knack to asking the most fruitful questions when addressing the entire class.
“Some girls will not answer questions unless they are 100pc sure they know the right answer,” says Doran. “So I find it helps to ask questions that have no wrong answer, like, ‘someone give me a number, any number, to put as the width for this div’ [a square on a webpage]. The funny thing is that girls usually give really small numbers like ‘seven’ whereas the boys in the mixed class will say ‘100,000,000,000’.”
Girl coders on the up
The ‘girls-only’ approach has paid off, with increased numbers of girls sticking with the sessions.
“Typically, before CoderDojoGirls we would see a small handful of girls, maybe five at most, in a class of 40,” says Doran. “Now we have between 20 and 30 girls in the girls-only session every Saturday. And at the moment, all the kids are working on their own projects so the girls’ class shares tables with one of our mixed classes. It is so cool to see a class of 50:50 girls to boys for a change! It was never about segregating girls. We just want to provide a space where girls are happy and comfortable to be themselves.”
Spreading the word
The approach at CoderDojoGirls in DCU has attracted interest from other groups looking to increase the engagement of girls in coding, according to Scullion, and a new girls-only session is about to start in Dun Laoghaire.
And being involved with the initiative has inspired both mentors.
“As a female software engineer who loves my job, tackling the stereotype that programming is only for men has become a personal goal of mine, particularly since getting involved in CoderDojoGirls,” says Doran. “We have joined together with six other female-friendly organisations, DigiWomen, WITS Ireland, PyLadies Dublin, Coding Grace, Girl Geek Dinners and AskATon under the banner #weAREhere to organise gender-diverse events. Our next event is an ‘unconference’ on failure on April 26 in the Science Gallery (in Dublin).”
In the longer term, Scullion would like to see the girls-only classes become a victim of their own success.
“I have two dreams for CoderDojoGirls,” Scullion says. “My short-term vision is that more and more CoderDojoGirls are set up around the country and the world. Then, as more young girls join CoderDojo, we are no longer relevant as girls in tech is the norm and not the exception.”
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland. You can nominate inspiring women in the fields of STEM via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter to @siliconrepublic.