Voter registration, recycling, and college tour signups were among the challenges teenage girls tackled with apps and websites they demonstrated Wednesday night at the graduation of a Girls Who Code summer immersion program, hosted for the first time by TripAdvisor.
Girls Who Code, a nonprofit, runs the summer program for girls entering their junior and senior years of high school. This year it placed nearly 1,200 girls in 57 summer program classrooms around the country, up from 19 classrooms last summer. Tech companies and universities host the summer sessions.
“I wish I’d had this opportunity when I was getting ready to go to college,” said TripAdvisor vice president of engineering Rekha Singh, one of the summer program mentors. TripAdvisor will host another session next summer. Employees of the travel website acted as mentors and speakers in the program, working alongside Girls Who Code instructors. Classes took place at TripAdvisor’s luxurious new headquarters in Needham, a space that includes a gym, free cafeteria, and floors themed around different continents.
Like the other summer program classrooms, the TripAdvisor group included 20 girls, many from out of state. Girls Who Code, founded in 2012, aims to build diverse student groups and encourages graduates to major in computer science in college. According to Girls Who Code’s website, the number of women among computer science graduates has dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to just 18 percent today.
Yasmine Laurent, Girls Who Code’s program manager for Boston and Springfield, said coding is only part of the picture. “We focus a lot on hard skills, but I think the soft skills that they leave with are probably the most important part for us,” she said. The program stresses self-confidence, networking, and college readiness.
The teens recognize the importance of these intangibles. “Girls need the exposure to computer science more than they need the skills,” said student Alex Zuber, who came to Needham from New York. She said high school girls may show up to a computer class feeling like they’re already behind because their male peers have spent more time gaming or playing around with programming.
Speakers who described their own career paths in computer science inspired the girls, too — especially women who demonstrated “not being afraid to do what you like to do,” said student Michelle Wu, from Maryland.
In the program’s final two weeks, students worked in small groups on a project of their choosing. This could be a website, an app, or even hardware — Laurent said girls in another classroom built a flute with light-up keys that teach you how to play.
Students Myisha Kinberg of Michigan and Olivia Spaulding of Massachusetts built a website for teenage girls who are interested in computer science and engineering. It includes information about internships, scholarships, and colleges with strong programs. The girls hope to make their website available to the public. “We’re going to try to buy a domain today,” Kinberg said Wednesday. “We’re called the Femineers.”
Between successes, the high-schoolers also learned about the frustrations and failures intrinsic to computer science. “It is gruesome working through the code and finding the bug,” Spaulding said. “But when you find it and you see it work, it’s just such an amazing feeling.”
One such frustration was Zuber and Wu’s final project. They rushed to build an educational website and game after technical challenges made them abandon their first idea: a map of the big new TripAdvisor office for its employees. “Everyone’s been having a really hard time getting around,” Zuber said.