UAB alumna Lindsay Hannon (right) works with a student at a recent Girls Who Code meeting. UAB alumna Lindsay Hannon (right) works with a student at a recent Girls Who Code meeting.

“There’s a bit of an adrenaline rush”: Sharing the thrill of programming with Girls Who Code

May 31, 2016
By Matt Windsor
A UAB faculty member and an alumna help teens see a future in computer science.

Katy Snoddy has a dream. The Homewood high schooler wants to work for Google’s life sciences startup, Verily, “designing code for the numerous devices used in medicine, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps,” she said. Snoddy, a rising junior at John Carroll Catholic High School, knows all about insulin pumps: she has type 1 diabetes. She has learned quite a bit about programming, too, since she recruited UAB computer scientist John Johnstone, Ph.D., to help her start Alabama’s first chapter of Girls Who Code. The national organization uses volunteer instructors, programming challenges and events, and talks by professionals in the field to get young women in the sixth through 12th grades interested in computer science.

“There’s a gradual shift to having a little bit of computer science in high schools, but there’s a need for much more,” said Johnstone, an associate professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Computer and Information Sciences. Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently tweeted the dismal statistics: even though 9 in 10 parents want their kids to study computer science, only a quarter of schools actually teach computer programming.

 mix gwc main trio 700UAB computer science faculty member John Johnstone and alumna Lindsay Hannon (right) with Katy Snoddy, the high school student whose interest in learning about programming led to the first Alabama chapter of Girls Who Code.

Filling a need

When classes are available, boys far outnumber girls. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women comprise 56 percent of all Advanced Placement test takers in U.S. high schools, and 46 percent of AP Calculus test takers, but only 19 percent of AP Computer Science test takers. Women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees, and 42 percent of undergrad math and statistics degrees, but only 18 percent of undergrad computer and information sciences degrees. And by staying away from computer science, women are missing out on the country’s hottest job field, Johnstone adds. By 2022, there will be more than 1 million computing-related jobs added in the United States, according to Department of Labor estimates.

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What keeps girls away from computing? The National Center for Women & Information Technology says the top factors include curricula that rely on lecturing instead of hands-on projects; teaching styles that discourage collaboration; lack of opportunities to take risks and make mistakes; limited knowledge or inaccurate perceptions about computing careers; and lower confidence than boys, even when actual achievement levels are similar.

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Booting up

Snoddy was not a girl who coded, but she wanted to be one. She read a Wall Street Journal article that explained how Girls Who Code addresses the issues that alienate young women from computer science. After she found out that there were no clubs in Alabama, she went looking for a volunteer instructor to start one. That’s how Snoddy ended up on the website of the Department of Computer and Information Sciences. “I went online and found Dr. Johnstone,” she said. “He teaches undergraduate computer science, so I figured he would be the best candidate.”

“Katy is amazing,” Johnstone said. “She just goes out and does things.” Johnstone, who had taught summer courses for high schoolers in his discipline, computer graphics, over several years, jumped at the chance to be involved. “This is the sort of outreach that our department is very interested in,” he said. As he was setting up a new chapter in early 2015, Johnstone asked for help from a former student, Lindsay Hannon, who earned a master’s degree in computer science at UAB in 2014.

 “I find it very inspiring to be around girls who have dreams about what they want to accomplish with what they learn: building medical monitoring applications, designing video games, animation. They are starting young to build the skills they need to accomplish those goals."

Making it their own

“I really like the idea of a place for younger girls to get together” and learn about all that computer science has to offer, said Hannon. She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Alabama and was working at the United Way when she got the coding bug. “I was putting together database and reporting applications,” she recalled. “I enjoyed doing that, but I also realized how much more I wanted to learn, so I went back to school.” After she graduated from UAB, Hannon got a job with Alabama Power. Now she works at Urban Coding, “a local development shop specializing in building modern web applications,” she said.

Hannon and her husband, Mikey, have extensive experience with math tutoring; for awhile, they ran what she describes as a “boot camp” for Birmingham high school students going into AP Calculus. “I especially enjoy working with the girls who are brand new and don’t know what they don’t know,” Hannon said. “That’s how I felt when I went back to school and had a math degree and wanted to know programming. I felt like I was behind. Part of my role is to get to know the girls personally — to see what they’re interested in and weave some of their interests into the lessons. I get really excited when the girls take a task on for themselves and add their own touches to it.”

“I love everything about coding,” Snoddy said. “My favorite part is after debugging my code, when it runs successfully. There’s a bit of an adrenaline rush.”

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The creative side of code

Hannon said that coding “can be a form of creative expression as well as a technical skill” — a realization that she shares with the girls. And computer science itself is becoming much more interdisciplinary with time, Johnstone adds. “It’s not just sitting in an office alone with a computer,” he said. Universities are now pairing computer science degrees with anthropology, linguistics and astronomy, to name a few examples, he explained.

The club meets every other Tuesday at Homewood Public Library, from 4 to 6 p.m. At a recent meeting, members snacked on Cheetos and Mountain Dew, then showed off some of their own creative projects, including a program that can draw the Japanese alphabet in a flowing script. (Several of the girls have shirts, bags or buttons showing their interest in Japanese anime culture.)

They do their programming in Python, a “fun language that allows you to explore quickly,” Johnstone said. “It’s becoming the standard way to introduce students to computer science.” (The CIS department at UAB added its first Python course this fall.) “They have an official curriculum, including exercises to work on at home, but it’s not just about coding,” Johnstone said. In the same way a person can be fluent in English but not be a very good writer, “you can know the syntax, but you also need to be introduced to computational thinking,” he explained. “Coding teaches you to think through a problem in very helpful ways.”

Building for the future

That is exactly the sort of training that Katy Snoddy was looking for. “I like that the program allows ample opportunities to go beyond the assignments,” she said. “I feel like I’m making computer science my way.” Snoddy is debating whether to major in computer science or biomedical engineering; Georgia Tech and UAB are her current top two schools of choice.

“Katy is a great person to have in the club,” Johnstone said. “She is willing to ask questions and not be too shy. At this age, many girls are very quiet. But you will see the light go on in terms of being excited about different problems.”

Those moments make volunteering a pleasure, Hannon added. “I find it very inspiring to be around girls who have dreams about what they want to accomplish with what they learn: building medical monitoring applications, designing video games, animation,” she said. “They are starting young to build the skills they need to accomplish those goals. And they enjoy it, which is an invigorating environment.”

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