One Workshop at a Time

by Gabriella Runnels

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in technology, but thankfully there are many organizations with passionate advocates who work tirelessly to bridge this gap. TechGirlz, one such nonprofit dedicated to exposing young girls to technical topics, seeks to combat this gender imbalance with free workshops (or “TechShopz”) that make technical topics fun and engaging for the middle school-age girls who participate.

The materials for these TechShopz are already tested and assembled, so anybody can volunteer to put on a successful event without having to start from scratch. So this past Saturday, some of us here at Opex helped host TechShopz in Atlanta and Chicago. The topic was “Making a Website Using HTML & CSS,” the second-most popular of the over fifty Techshopz topic packages that Techgirlz has created.

Though it’s always a worthy cause, March 30th was a particularly special day to lend a hand. The two events we supported were just a small part of Saturday’s international effort to set the first-ever world record for the number of girls coding at once. In honor of Women’s History Month, Techgirlz scheduled synchronized Techshopz all over the US and Colombia to ensure that participating girls were all coding at exactly the same time.

Julia tells the class about the day’s activities

While it’s obviously exciting to set a world record, Clara, an Opex data scientist who assisted in Atlanta, was inspired to get involved because of her own experiences as a woman in a technical field. “I had really strong people in my life encouraging me to be a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics),” she said. “But even so, I didn’t start coding until college. I wanted to encourage a new generation of women in tech and show them how fun and cool it can be.”

The workshop began with an overview of the Internet and a brief introduction to HTML, the language behind much of a website’s design. This was followed by a debugging session, which challenged the girls to find the errors in a sample HTML script. This particular exercise was the part of the workshop during which the world record was set. At the critical moment, potential future technologists filled the frame of each session’s live video feed, with some girls breaking out into coordinated cheers, others just smiling at the opportunity to learn something new.

Gabriella goes over introductions

Opex data scientist and Chicago workshop organizer Julia thought the event was a great opportunity to emphasize the value of continued learning and teamwork, with the debugging session as a highlight. “One of the most rewarding parts of the workshop was watching the girls help find bugs in each other’s code,” she said.

Next, it was time for the girls to build their own custom websites. Using the free text editor Sublime Text, the girls wrote HTML and CSS code to design websites about a topic of their choosing. Many girls focused their websites on women they admired, like Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go to space. Others had sites related to topics of personal interest, like the challenges facing endangered species. One girl even designed a site for her own small business!

Atlanta attendee Mfreke J.’s website

Designing your own website in a new programming language is no easy feat, and Brooke, another Opex data scientist and organizer/instructor for the Chicago event, wanted to teach the girls that it’s okay to mess up. “We tried to reiterate to the girls [that they should] embrace their mistakes instead of getting frustrated,” she said. “That is how we learn and improve in our abilities.”

We had the privilege of working with nearly forty middle school girls at our two events, and what they built in such a short time was truly impressive. Participating in the record-setting event was a great bonus, and a big success: at roughly 1:00PM EDT on March 30th, there were 342 girls around the world coding simultaneously. An impressive record — and one that we hope gets broken soon.

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