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By Sarah Colson
When most high schoolers think of summer vacation fun, they generally do not envision a week of computer programming. But that’s precisely the kind of fun 12 students enjoyed last week at East Tennessee State University — the kind of fun that will encourage, if not ensure, bright futures in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career fields.
The 12 students attended “Code Camp,” a program intended to teach young people about the field of computer science, a field the U.S. Labor Department estimates will provide 1.4 million job openings in this decade alone. It also happens to be the field that has the highest median earnings for recent college graduates.
ETSU’s Department of Computing Coordinator, Mathew Desjardin, said the goal of the camp is to reach out to the community of young students in order to expose them to computer science, programming and coding. He hopes the camp encourages those who would not normally go into that field to consider it.
“It’s really about exposure,” he said. “There’s so much stuff to learn. If people don’t get exposed to it, they’ll never know. I’m hoping we can just spread the word and get coding into their lives a little bit.”
Some of those students being exposed to computer programming this week are young women participating in the 100 Girls of Code program, a national initiative that “promotes code and computer engineering to women at a young age,” and aims to “achieve gender parity in STEM fields.” While careers in STEM fields are growing at a high rate, only about 12 percent of those in the field are women.
For rising Science Hill sophomore Remington Blansett, a career in anything seems too far away to imagine. But for now, she’s working on developing her computer programming skills, which she believes will aid her in any career she decides to pursue. Blansett attended the Code Academy last year and is back this year to have more STEM fun.
“Not a lot of girls do it, so it’s neat being one of the few of them,” she said. “In a lot of jobs these days, these are good skills to know. I think it’s just fun, really, learning how to make games and websites and learning how to make a computer do something.”
While this is the first year ETSU has hosted the 100 Girls of Code camp, encouraging young women to pursue STEM careers is not a new idea. For more than 15 years, the Department of Computing at ETSU has coordinated the program called “GIST” (Girls in Science and Technology).
“The outcome has been positive from both these types of female-focused camps,” Desjardin said. “It’s great to expose them to (coding) and to show that it’s not just geeky or nerdy to be in computer science. It’s cool and women can do it too. They actually do it better.”
Dr. Kellie Price organizes and teaches both the GIST program and the 100 Girls of Code and said one of her favorite parts of the program is watching what happens when someone who has never learned about computer programming finds out how fun it can be.
“My favorite part is mainly just seeing how excited they are when they learn something new,” she said of her students. “The other thing is when we get campers who come back the next year. They’re so excited so you know whatever we did the year before worked and got them interested. They’re happy to come back and they’re always begging for more.”
As someone who has made her career in computer sciences, Price understands the importance of getting kids interested at a young age. Many students, she believes, would be interested if they were only introduced sooner.
“It’s really important to expose them to (computer sciences) so they see if they have the aptitude for it, they see if they’re really excited about it,” she said. “If they find out at this early age that they’re excited about it, that will help them when they’re in high school or searching for a career path in college.
“If people love problem solving, then they’re great at coding,” price said. “So it may just be something they have never thought about doing before. It’s so fun to let them play around with it and really find out if they like doing these things. And most of the time, they love it.”
Desjardin, who is the father of two girls, said that one of the most important aspects of the 100 Girls of Code program and other programs like it is it gives female students the opportunity to learn in an environment full of female mentors that are there to encourage and not intimidate. He said he’s seen gender disparity in the field and wants to get rid of what he explained as an atmosphere of “bullying.”
“I hate to say that but I’ve seen it happen,” he said. “I really want to have equal opportunities for everyone in our field. In the STEM field, females are just not in the numbers so we want to change that.”
Part of the 100 Girls of Code’s mission statement is to provide “young women an opportunity to create and gain confidence in what they create.” For Blansett, that is exactly what’s happening this summer in the small classroom at ETSU as she creates her new game. She plans on trying out for the Science Hill soccer team next week and the computer game she’s programming mirrors her passion for soccer.
“The ball continuously goes at the goal and if it touches the goalie then it restarts and the goalie gets a point,” Blansett described her new game to News & Neighbor.
She said she was nervous about her try-outs next week, but this camp is helping her pour out some of her nervous energy into computer coding.
For more information on 100 Girls of code or to register your student for free, visit 100girlsofcode.com. The next session will take place June 17. Both camps are sponsored by the Niswonger Foundation, Tennessee Code Academy and AccelNow.