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Cracking the Code: First-ever Katie CoderDojo a hit with girls

Volunteer mentors at the first-ever Katie CoderDojo helped girls ages 8–13 learn basic coding for computer games and mobile apps.
Volunteer mentors at the first-ever Katie CoderDojo helped girls ages 8–13 learn basic coding for computer games and mobile apps.
Hilary Stein '14

Women are still in the minority in computer-driven professions, but a look around St. Catherine University’s Coeur de Catherine last Sunday may have given the impression that the tide is shifting.

At least that’s what the organizers of the first-ever Katie CoderDojo were hoping when they created the girls-only computer coding event.

The free two-hour event, which drew some 40 participants between the ages of 8-13, was an opportunity for girls to learn how to use the basic coding software Scratch and AppInventor to create simple computer programs and mobile apps. Organizers hoped to spark participants’ interest in computer programming careers and even help them learn a bit more about how their favorite electronic games and devices are created.

A team of more than 20 volunteer mentors was on hand to introduce the girls to the software, brainstorm ideas for programs they could invent and answer questions as they worked on their creations.

An international movement

CoderDojos are part of an international volunteer movement designed to increase opportunities for young people — especially those in underserved communities — to learn how to program computers.

For the Katie CoderDojo, St. Catherine’s National Center for STEM Elementary Education teamed with Code Savvy, a Minnesota nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and enabling kids, teens and adults to become more interested in computer science. CenturyLink also sponsored the event, offering financial and technical support.

Code Savvy board members had long been talking about hosting a girls-only coding event, and St. Catherine University, with its mission centered on women’s education and leadership, was identified as the ideal host, said Rebecca Shatz, Code Savvy founder. She attended Sunday’s event, and was impressed by the supportive, “girl-positive” feeling in the air.

“I’m thrilled to be at St. Kate’s,” Shatz said. “An all-woman’s college that advocates for women’s leadership and influence in the world is the perfect home for an all-girl CoderDojo.”

Patty Born Selly, director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education, agrees that St. Catherine — and her center — were well suited to host the event. “In keeping with our mission, we wanted to help under-represented populations increase their access to this kind of opportunity,” she said. 

As plans for the event got underway, Selly said she and her colleagues wondered how they could find enough participants. But Schatz told them not to fret. 

“The thing about CoderDojos is that they fill up so fast,” Selly said. “They are free and fun and kids seem to be universally interested in tinkering with computers. We were constantly assured we were not going to have a problem finding participants. The slots filled up quickly and we even had to have a waiting list. We didn’t need to worry at all.”

The first of many events

Sunday’s event was the first of several that will be held at the University. For the next six months, Katie CoderDojos will be held monthly on campus, said Sue Kuncio, operations coordinator for the National Center for STEM Elementary Education. “If interest and participation remains strong,” she said, “we could open another room and include more girls.” The next event will be held March 16 in Coeur de Catherine.

Matt Johnson, Code Savvy board member and senior analyst at Target Corporation, is the father of two daughters, ages 3 and 5. He was at Sunday’s Katie CoderDojo, volunteering as a programming mentor for participants. “Getting women interested in computer sciences is definitely something I value very highly,” he said. “I want my daughters to see that these kinds of careers are an option for them.”

Johnson was a fan of the girls-only event, which he said “created an environment that allowed the girls to interact more naturally or freely than they would’ve in a mixed-gender environment.”

Most of the participants had little or no coding experience, Schatz said. And that’s just what organizers were hoping for.

“We wanted to bring this event to an audience that otherwise wasn’t going to consider coding,” she said. “They were so excited about learning the programs. It really opened up their eyes to the possibilities. It was a big hit.”


Related content:

Watch this Vine of a Katie CoderDojo participant in action.

View more photos from the event on flickr.

Feb. 18, 2014 by Andy Steiner

See also: Leadership, Liberal Arts, STEM