2017-07-28 / Front Page

RSU 21 has formula for Girls Who Code

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Members of the Girls Who Code program at Middle School of the Kennebunks included, front from left, Lauren Poulin, Maggie Nelson and Abbie Lemieux, along with club coaches, back, Megan MacDonald, from RSU 21, and Joanna Buckley and Jenn Maher, of Kennebunk-based technology business Plixer. (Courtesy photo) Members of the Girls Who Code program at Middle School of the Kennebunks included, front from left, Lauren Poulin, Maggie Nelson and Abbie Lemieux, along with club coaches, back, Megan MacDonald, from RSU 21, and Joanna Buckley and Jenn Maher, of Kennebunk-based technology business Plixer. (Courtesy photo) We may be fully into summer, but that doesn’t mean RSU 21 has taken a break from assessing its programs and services, and one pilot program from this past spring is being given an enthusiastic thumbs up for a larger launch this fall.

Girls Who Code is not a new idea, but it is one that is on an impressive growth curve. Started with just 20 girls in New York in 2013, the program, the national nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology jobs, has grown to more than 40,000 member in all 50 states.

According to RSU 21 Assistant Superintendent Phillip J. Potenziano 40,000 is also the number of people who graduated with computer science degrees across the United States last year. Those graduates are in line for nearly 500,000 open jobs in the field. But only about 18 percent of them are women — a percentage that’s actually about half what it was in the 1980s.

“By 2020 it is reported here will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields,” Potenziano said. “U.S. graduates are on track to fill 29 percent of those jobs, but American women are on track to fill just 3 percent.

“So, what the data has shown is just how few females are going into technology-based fields,” Potenziano said. “So, when Plixer reached out to us, we were, like, cool.”

But the reason Plixer extended it’s hand to the school district is because company CEO Michael Patterson, of Wells, discovered something he decided was most decidedly not cool.

At a software industry conference last fall, Patterson saw a presentation given by Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. Inspired by the number of openings and earning potential in the field, Patterson talked to his two high-school aged daughters upon returning home about possible careers writing the code that makes so much of the technology we take for granted work.

“They responded in a way that basically reinforced that women do not look at coding or computers as a career opportunity for them,” Patterson said on Monday. “It was essentially the same reaction as if I had asked them if they wanted to be a plumber, or an auto mechanic. They were just, like, no way!

“Although my wife is a programmer, the idea that my girls had already ruled out computer science as a career, even though it’s a field that has allowed us to have a nice home in a nice town, that made me nervous,” Patterson said. “After all, I employ over a dozen software engineers and they are mostly men. So, I can see that trend, and it was troubling to know how early is starts.”

So, Patterson got together with two of his female software engineers, Jennifer Maher and Joanna Buckley to put together a program based on the Girls Who Code model, and reached out to RSU 21. They were immediately received and an after-school club was launched in February with the help of middle school technology coordinator Megan MacDonald. Several girls came and went over the next five months, but four stuck int out regularly through the course of the semester.

The two-hour blocks were limited to girls only, in part to build their confidence with the material, as well as the outcome-based learning model that, like most new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classes, promotes hands-on learning through trial and error.

“There’s been a lot of research that shows girls are sometimes afraid to try things and take chances because they don’t like to make mistakes, moreso that boys, who will often just jump in and give it a go,” Maher said.

By limiting the classes to girls, the idea is that they will not be intimidated by the gung-ho experimentation of their male peers.

But confidence building also meant overcoming a lot of other gender stereotypes. Before the students even got to the first lines of code, films were shown profiling female leaders in math and science.

“It was good for them to see women in the real world, doing these big projects that were affecting a lot of people,” MacDonald said.

One fan of the new club is Amy Lemieux, whose daughter Abby was one of the inaugural enrollees.

“From my perspective, she was very excited from the first meeting,” Lemieux said by email Monday. “Had they not offered that club, she would not have known that she even liked coding. Now, she loves it. She couldn’t wait to go back each week. It’s the first after school activity that she’s felt passionate about.”

After a pilot season that focused mostly on building web pages, MacDonald said next year is likely to include greater forays into software coding and creating actual apps, along with an expansion of the program from the Middle School of the Kennebunks to Kennebunk High School.

“We were very excited to have Plixer reach out to us,” Potenziano said. “We’re always open to the idea of partnering with local businesses and we feel this program really met a need.”

“I think what I found most fulfilling was seeing these girls bond and build friendships over a shared interest they didn’t even know they had,” MacDonald said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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