Bringing coding for girls to the community

Paul Mayne // Western NewsAspiring engineer Hannah VanderPloeg, left, received a little advice from Western’s Women in Engineering outreach program coordinator Kelsey Lavigne as the pair worked on creating buzzing paperclip circuits, part of the Go CODE Girl event at Western Engineering.

For adults, playing can be a break from life. For young girls in grade school, playing might just be the first step to a fulfilling career.

This month, 60 young women aged 12 to 17 had fun and gained digital skills at Go CODE Girl – an annual ‘Just for Girls’ coding event offered by Western Engineering.

Participants and their parents began the day by learning how female engineers are changing the face of the profession. Young, aspiring engineers made buzzing paperclip circuits and learned to code with Scratch – a free programming language used to create animated stories and games.

Malorie Butlin, a Grade 9 student participating in Go CODE Girl for the second time and had made a ‘two dinosaurs meet the giant asteroid’ animation, said the day offers advantages to coding beginners.

“Unlike Java and some other programs I’ve worked with – which you have to learn and type in the ‘computer language’ – Scratch is a great introduction to coding, since you can program right away using drag-and-drop ‘blocks,” she said. “Each data type has its own shape and special slot it can be inserted into, so you avoid syntax errors. The split screen lets you see the actual code as well as other panels such as the graphic elements. You get to create and change your program quickly, which is great for learning.”

Her mother, Marion Williamson, agreed and noted, “back in my day, you knew if your Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) computer language worked only if, after typing many lines of code, you pressed print – and then, hopefully, something came out of the printer.”

Katy Foster, a high school student and an instructor for the day, said events such as these are critical to helping move beyond the stereotype that only boys code. It’s about improving computer literacy in a field that needs the collaborative skills girls bring to this work.

“It is really important to get girls as young as 12 interested in not just using tech, but also showing them the advantages of learning how to read and write in computer language,” said Foster. “Go CODE Girl opens up whole new worlds for them.”

Today’s young people want to change the world and create a fair society – and keynote speaker Heather Shipley began the event by explaining that’s exactly what engineers do.

Shipley, who has designed manufacturing execution systems for factories around the world, spoke about her experience in directing teams of engineers, technologists and technicians for ZTR, a provider of intelligent remote equipment monitoring for the construction, oil and gas and transportation markets.

The message seems to be getting through and the enthusiasm is contagious.

“This is our third Go CODE Girl event and we’ve noticed a steady increase in enrolment. This year we had 60 participants register and all 60 showed up,” said Kelsey Lavigne, Western’s Women in Engineering outreach program coordinator.