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Young students in club become ‘Girls Who Code’

Westridge Elementary fifth-grader Lillian Cline reads "Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World" by Reshma Saujani during the school's first Girls Who Code club meeting of the year at the school in Frankfort, Kentucky on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.
Westridge Elementary fifth-grader Lillian Cline reads "Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World" by Reshma Saujani during the school's first Girls Who Code club meeting of the year at the school in Frankfort, Kentucky on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. McKenna Horsley

Layla Lemghaili started computer coding as a third grader at Westridge Elementary. She was among a group of girls who joined the pilot program of Girls Who Code.

Now as a fifth grade student, Layla is returning to the group to further her coding skills.

Girls Who Code is a national movement to close the gender gap in technological fields. The Westridge group won first place in the Girls Who Code category at the state Student Technology Leadership Program last year and Elkhorn Middle School will start a similar group this year.

Aditi Raje, another fifth grade student at Westridge, first joined Girls Who Code last year and was at the group's first meeting on Tuesday. She said her dad is a web design coder and she wanted to learn how to do it herself. Right now, she sees coding as a hobby she enjoys and a possible career path, though it's a backup plan.

"I wanted the feeling how he felt when he was coding," Aditi said.

Girls Who Code gives an opportunity for students who may not realize that they would enjoy coding to give it a try, Aditi said.

The club gives girls an opportunity to learn about what interests them, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, said another fifth grade student, Lillian Cline. She said club members have helped fellow students in the school's regular coding classes.

The three are among 10 girls in the club. Girls Who Code's adviser Jessica Masters said that typical club meetings include the girls reading out of the club's namesake book, "Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World" by Reshma Saujani, and completing sisterhood and coding activities. Masters, who is the school's library media specialist, said the program provides a grant of about $300 a semester for students to have snacks or other supplies needed for meetings. Students do not have dues. The group usually meets at Westridge in the fall and was first started three years ago as a pilot club for the state.

Masters said that for younger students, by the time they leave the elementary program, they are coding at a middle school or early high school level.

"There's really no reason to not have this club," Masters said.

During meetings, girls learn about coding jobs that they can get after they graduate with Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Instagram. Both Lillian and Layla said that because of Girls Who Code, they are considering STEM careers.

"Whenever I grow up, if I continue doing this, it's definitely going to be like an idea (of a career)," said Layla.

Elkhorn Middle language arts teacher Susan Hellard said this school year will be the first year Girls Who Code will be fully implemented at EMS. Hellard and media specialist Kate Osterloh are working on the program and are still recruiting students, who will meet during lunch. Hellard said she would send out more details on the club after winter break.

At the middle school level, participants can decide what kind of project they want to work on in the group. Some national examples are mental health websites or websites about helping nearby neglected dogs.

She said that Girls Who Code gives students potential job opportunities if they learn coding early on and the group supports sisterhood among women. Fewer than 1 in 5 women graduate with a degree in computer science, and girls' participating in computing is at the lowest among ages 13 to 17.

"If I'm able to provide young women the opportunity to learn how to code, then we can begin to close the gender gap that exists in technology," Hellard said.

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