January 21, 2015 | Lori Dykstra

Men and women may be equal consumers of technology, but women today represent only 12% of all computer science graduates in the U.S. That number is down from 37% in 1984. Funded by businesses including Twitter, AT&T, Google and Intel, Girls Who Code (GWC) was created to reverse this pattern. The mission of this national nonprofit organization is to inspire, educate and equip middle and high school girls with 21st century computing skills.

On January 12, Calvin launched a local GWC chapter that will meet weekly throughout the semester. The volunteer instructors of the new chapter are Ruth Holtrop ’14, and Heather Bremer, software developers at Open Systems Technologies in downtown Grand Rapids.

The club is meant to introduce young girls to the field of computer science and the opportunities that it creates. Whether male or female, “If you like program-solving and being creative, you have a place in computer science. It’s so broad; you can do anything with it,” said Holtrop.

Making a difference

The GWC curriculum includes monthly, project-based activities and opportunities to build real-world software including mobile apps and games. Students also work on a project of their choosing that impacts the community.

“By making it problem-oriented, they can see that this isn’t just abstract stuff of no consequence. This can be used for social good and it can make a difference,” said Joel Adams, chair of the computer science department.

Camille Emig, a junior at Grand Rapids City High, was behind the efforts to start the new chapter. Her excitement for computing is contagious among the 23 girls that have been attending. Emig’s hope is to share with them what she knows and loves about computing.

“If you have an idea, the amazing thing about computers is the fact that you can almost always make that idea come true," said Emig.

Bridging the Confidence Gap

Adams says it's important that young girls interested in technology experience that kind of message and passion.

“Research has shown that women who come into this area in college feel like the guys have this huge head start on them, so they’re at a disadvantage,” said Adams. “There’s a real confidence gap that’s been observed all across the country. We’ve seen it here at Calvin.”

Holtrop has also witnessed the confidence gap. “A lot of girls are good at program-solving,” she said, “but they don’t give themselves the chance because they think, ‘maybe I don’t belong there, I’m not smart enough.’ That kind of thing.”

As GWC instructors and successful females in computing, Holtrop and Bremer recognize their positions as positive role models for their students.

“I think it’s a good idea to have this club to show them, ‘Hey, you can do this,’” said Holtrop, “And it’s fun at the same time.”

Opening more doors

In October, Calvin College computer science professor Serita Nelesen took four of her students to Phoenix, Ariz., for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing—the world's largest gathering of women technologists. Nelesen says this is just one of the many ways the computer science department is trying to increase the representation of women in their field.

“Computing is used in so many areas of our lives today—business, healthcare, art, science, etc.—and yet only a small group of people (usually white males) are represented in the making of those technologies,” said Nelesen. “We recognize that having more diversity in who creates the technology will have an important and beneficial impact on which technologies are created and how those technologies work for end users. Women have different experiences, ask different questions; encouraging women to be part of the groups that create leads to better solutions.”

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