Next Century Women in Computing Day

Notes of a Programming Session Lead

The idea of adding computer science education to the traditional three Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) taught in the elementary and middle school is gradually becoming an accepted notion in American educational circles. But while few public school offer computer science curriculum to students before they enter high school, many commercial and non-profit organizations lead the charge with such initiatives as Girls Who Code and the Hour of Code. The 7-year old Next Century “Women in Computing Day” (WCD) tradition serves to help young women who are underrepresented in the field of Computer Science to discover the joy of programming, algorithms and user experience design at an early age.

Participating for the first time in this event organized by my company and its partners was a great experience for me, for it gave me a chance to interact with a large group of enthusiastic and dedicated people gathered on a beautiful Saturday morning on June 3rd, 2017 at the Next Century’s Maryland office. It made welcome to the 60+ girls who were genuinely interested in what the instructors had to teach them, their parents who thought it important to expose their daughters from the school age to computer literacy, and volunteers who dedicated their day off to making this annual event a highly memorable one for all the participants.

I was duly impressed by the event’s scale and clockwork organization: despite having over 60 girls in attendance in a relatively small space, all the dividing of the students into groups, directing transitions between the sessions, feeding not just their minds but also the hungry stomachs, dealing with girls’ items forgotten in various places, it all went without a hitch. The main reason for this well-oiled mechanism was the chief organizer, the soul and the brain of the event, Dr. Laurian Vega, who started the preparatory activity 4 months before the occasion.

Laurian (on the right) making introductions at the Women in Computing Day at Next Century

Since I had prior experience teaching programming to middle-school students as part of the Girls Who Code group, I quickly responded to the Laurian’s call for company volunteers, which went out in February of this year. After speaking to Laurian I concluded that being a coding session lead would be the best way for me to participate in WCD. Having then scoured numerous educational web sites trying to come up with the activity for the girls, I settled on the educational company I was familiar with from the Girls Who Code sessions — Khan Academy.

The initial difficulty lay in the fact that Khan Academy classes were designed to be taken over weeks if not months, while I would have less than an hour with each group of girls to teach them something useful and make it exciting at the same time. Well, the good folks at Khan Academy had a solution to my problem — The Hour of Code curriculum which they created in response to the eponymous initiative started by several years ago. Khan Academy utilized the resources of one of their programming classes, Introduction to JavaScript: Drawing and Animation to create a series of lectures, exercises and projects to be completed in the course of an hour.

The content problem solved, I pinged Laurian to make sure that computers, on which I can train the students were available and ready for battle. That was a pro-forma question, since I was certain that Next Century would have plenty of computers available for this noble purpose. Boy, was I wrong. It turned out my company was running a very lean shop and they had no computers to spare for the hordes of knowledge-hungry girls. Over the course of several month various ideas on how to satisfy the short-term peak demand for hardware were bounced around between Bart Scully (Next Century IT maven), Laurian and me.

$30 Raspberry Pi Computer

The extent of my creativity in the face of this obstacle was to propose to borrow the computers from the company employees for a day, which proved to be a sensible solution, albeit far inadequate for coming up with the requisite 15 machines. Bart, however, proved quite up to the task of procuring 10 additional machines: his brilliant idea was to purchase a bunch of Raspberry PIs at $30 a piece and install Linux on them (all I needed was a browser to run Khan Academy class), thus satisfying the demand for the remaining computers for the price of a single Windows laptop. Not only Bart and his IT team acquired and configured the machines, they set them up the night before the WCD in the conference room, where the training was to take place. Kudos to the Bart’s gang — we did not have a single computer issue over the course of the five 50-minute sessions.

The author assisting the girls during a drawing exercise
Matt and Morgan are making sure the students are on the right path

The schedule of the Women in Computing Day allowed for no slack: 5 sessions with 10-minute breaks between them and a 30-minute entr’acte for battling the 4-foot-high stack of pizza boxes. I was blessed with two competent and dedicated assistants, Matt Bulkley and Morgan Rone, giving all 60+ students in 5 sessions individual attention and resetting all the machines between the classes to be ready for the next group would be impossible. Each session consisted of a brief introduction of an upcoming activities, followed by Khan Academy lectures and drawing exercises whose goal was to draw a snowman, depict the ground beneath his “feet”, complement him with a face and arms and color the picture.

Snowman Coloring Exercise

The seemingly simple exercises covered a lot of basic programming notions such as functions, their arguments, an invocation order, the importance of proper syntax as well as basic math concepts dealing with locations in a coordinate system. (The further lectures in the same course introduce many more programming concepts including variables, flow control statements, function definition, code modularity as well as the basics of object orientation, all of which, alas, were beyond the scope of the 50-minute sessions).

The three of us conducted 5 session with girls of ages between 8 and 15. Each class had its own challenges: the 8-year-olds found dealing with the coordinate plane quite confusing producing randomly-stacked balls instead of snowmen, while the eldest group zipped through the hour of code in the first thirty minutes and we had to improvise by teaching them topics from the underlying course such as animation. Otherwise, the sessions followed the outline of the Khan Academy Hour of Code curriculum with 5-minute lectures followed by exercises. We let the girls watch the video and then gave them time to complete the drawing challenge, moving to the next topics once most of the girls were done. Most groups had time to complete two challenges, with some girls who finished before the rest of their peers continuing with the third lecture (using the headphones) and exercise.

We had to do a number of adjustments as we gained experience from one session to another: it is not a good idea to allow the girls to code while they are listening to a lecture; keep the introduction short and move to the video lecture before you lose your audience; the girls are capable of resetting the exercises on their own so the three of us did not have to frantically rush from computer to computer during the short break.

The classes were educational for me as well. The Khan Academy instructor mentioned a Cyclops while drawing the second eye of a snowman. When I inquired during the session with 12-year-olds if they knew who the Cyclopes were, I learned that the Cyclopes were characters from Percy Jackson stories. Seeing my surprise and trying to defend his charges, the volunteer assigned to the 12-year-olds explained to me that The Odyssey is not taught until the High School.

I left the office that day totally exhausted after nearly 5 hours of teaching, mostly on my feet, but inspired by the feelings of camaraderie and the sense of common purpose with my colleagues and volunteers from other companies, and most of all by the experience of teaching the girls who were genuinely happy to spend their Saturday writing code. All was right with the world.