The Web Divas
This fall, I started a program at a local middle school to teach girls how to program. A few months after the program, I’d like to share my thoughts on how it went.
I wanted to inspire girls to program, because it had taken me so long to get here myself -I wish I’d considered computer science sooner. I think girls are at a disadvantage to boys, in part because they’re not encouraged to program, but also in part because it just doesn’t occur to them. Boys grow up playing video games, and almost every nerdy boy I know got into computer science because he wanted to build his own video games. My own boyfriend learned to program by copying a simple horse racing game he’d seen on a baseball field screen, because he selfishly wanted to own it himself at age 7 (that’s got to be one of my favorite Andy stories ). But girls don’t usually get that same inspiration or guidance.
When I was little, I actually collected my dad’s old computer parts in a box, with nothing really to do with them other than take them out like legos and inspect them. I had a calculator – just a regular throwaway pocket calculator – ridiculous as it is, that was probably one of the most played-with toys I had when I was about 10. I put together a paper book of all the amazing things you could do with this calculator – making up games, spelling out words like SHELL (77345) and LIES and HELLO. How might it have been different if I’d really been programming?
For whatever reason, programming didn’t really occur to me as a viable career until I’d gotten a BS in math and was in a PhD program, for math. When I finally realized at UNC that computer science was my real passion, I took as many CS classes as I could, and left the program with a master’s in math, wishing I’d had a real computer science education.
My friend Belinda had a very similar story. And we both knew a lot of women with that story. That set the stage for our motivation to start a program.
The Web Divas
Belinda and I started an after school club, called the Web Divas, to teach the girls how to build websites. The idea was that we’d teach them how to code in HTML first, to help build confidence and give them something they were excited about and could show their friends. We made each young woman her own subdomain of our common club domain name, webdivasclub, so that each person could have their own unique “website”. Then, we set up net2ftp on the server so they could work on their sites from anywhere, just through the browser.
The club met once a week, each Friday, in the school’s computer lab, starting in October. We had great success in getting people – we had 20-30 kids each week come, with near 40 students signed up for the club. We wanted the club to feel open, more like a club and less like a class, to keep everything fun and “cool”. We’d talk for maybe 5-10 minutes at the beginning to teach one new thing, and then spend the rest of the time going around the room answering questions and helping out.
At the start, it was a madhouse – there were tons and tons of questions as the kids learned the basics of how to connect and what to do when they didn’t know what to do, or didn’t have anything to do. Towards the middle of the semester, as the students knew how to do more, they had a lot more autonomy in building their sites, and it got easier for us.
By Christmas – now that I think about it, that’s really just two and a half months – the students had all put up basic websites. Most of them had gotten together links, images, and a little styling. Though we’d planned to wait and show them CSS, we ended up showing them inline styling so they could quickly and easily add color to their sites – and they loved it. Their sites let them express themselves in a unique way, something that’s feels like it’s supremely important to middle schoolers. At the end, we had a Christmas party, where the students showed off their sites. Though most read more like blogs, there were certainly some unique takes! Some of my favorites:
- One particularly cheery student (seriously, I loved how she was always smiling!) used her site as a public service announcement promoting good hygiene and anti-smoking, using imagery as a scare tactic. Now that was a fun one to see at our Christmas website showing! (:
- One budding entrepreneur used her site to promote her babysitting business
- One student, our only boy in the class, cleverly protected his site. He copied and pasted one word at least thousands of times, and then linked a single word to a secret page, adding styling so that the link didn’t show. Ha!
The project was a success – we had at about 25 girls (all the ones that came regularly) end the class with full working websites, that enjoyed themselves during the class. It actually too me a while to see that it was a success, though, because our expectations had been far too high. To sum up, here are some of the things I think I learned:
- People are really helpful when you’re clear about what you want. The program I wanted to run didn’t even exist, but I had absolutely not problem setting it up. The teachers, administrators and principles were so kind to be involved with every step of the process, making sure this program happened.
- Some volunteering may be more effective at the policy level. For instance, I’d like to address the reason why 11-year-olds in 2011 can barely download an image or locate the shift key. I’d like to explore whether or not I could more efficiently volunteer as a city commissioner or similar.
- It’s really important to be super flexible, super encouraging, and super positive. Girls will look up to that. I think we did just fine with that one. (:
I’m really, really glad I had this experience. I’m thankful to have had great people to work with here – Belinda, our volunteers Becca and Christina, all the kind people at the school who really helped us set the program up and get students, and of course, our students! I certainly learned some valuable lessons here and had the opportunity to meet and work with great, kind people that truly care. (:
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