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“Today I built a self-propelled car,” says NyEla, 10, to a room full of cheering parents and beaming girls from elementary school to high school. “It was pretty simple.” Only a few hours ago, NyEla had never programmed before, and now she showed her creation, a game in which a car drives on a roughly rendered track by itself. NyEla immersed herself in computer programming today with the help of an organization called Black Girls Code (BGC).
When Amber Morse, BGC’s event coordinator on the West Coast, yells at the crowd of parents and children: “What should we do?”, the girls call back: “We are changing the face of technology!
Black Americans make up only 7 percent of the country’s technology engineers. Only 3 percent are black women. These racial and gender differences cannot be explained by lack of access; the days when you had to be wealthy as a child to use a computer have disappeared. According to Barbara J. Ericson, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the biggest problem now is not getting the opportunity to take computer science courses before college. Of those who took the Advanced Placement Test in Computer Science in 2015, 78 percent were male and only 4 percent black. “The students with prior experience in these areas are the ones who will succeed in college,” says Ericson.
The BGC’s mission, which began in 2011, is to close the gap by encouraging girls to tinker and think about programs at an early age so that they feel they can compete in computer science classes in college and beyond. This goal is also shared by Silicon Valley BGC sponsors like Salesforce and Google, who struggle with diversity, and similar nonprofit organizations across the country, such as Girls Who Code and Level the Playing Field.
BGC introduces young colored women to computer programming by organizing weekend coding sessions and bringing them together with mentors. The girls learn to code with Scratch, a computer language developed at MIT that allows users to manipulate visual tools to create algorithms, the logic systems behind the programs. It is simple enough for the children to learn, but powerful enough to be used in introductory computer science courses at some universities. The girls drag and drop colored puzzle pieces to create simple instructions, such as “when the ball hits a wall, stop”.
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Most BCG volunteers work in the technical field and are well aware of the massive diversity problem in the industry. “Tech is mainly white and Asian,” says Robert Hui, a programmer at Netflix who volunteered to teach girls how to program. “This is the demographic composition since college.” He says that about 25 percent of his undergraduate computer science classes were female, but that number shrank as he moved on to more advanced classes. But Hui also believes that changes are coming. After a gruelling day of dealing with computer errors, a girl ran up to a volunteer and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to work at Google and ride my bike during my lunch break,” proving that she already has the soul of a technician.
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