June 27, 2014 in Idaho

Program takes byte out of gender gap

UI’s Dig’nIT designed to inspire more girls to pursue careers in computer science
By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Rylie Rasmussen, 13, center, of Hayden, participates Thursday in University of Idaho’s software coding camp for middle school girls at the Coeur d’Alene campus.
(Full-size photo)

A wall and at least one generation separated two groups of students learning computer programming skills in Coeur d’Alene this week.

In one classroom, 26 middle school girls took some of their first steps into computer coding. Next door, 20 high school teachers from across the Inland Northwest sat for similar lessons in hopes of integrating computer science into their math courses.

The dual approach for girls ages 11 to 14 and for teachers is called Dig’nIT, short for Digital Innovation Generating New Information Technology, and is presented by the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene.

Computer science skills are in high demand, but women still lag far behind men in pursuing those careers, said Julie Amador, director of the UI’s Idaho Regional Mathematics Center at Coeur d’Alene’s Harbor Center. Only about 15 percent of UI computer science students are females, Amador said.

“We’re trying to get them at this age to help form some of those perceptions that they can do it and they have the ability, and it’s not something that has to be a male-dominated career,” she said.

Another goal is to show the students how math is a fundamental component of many of today’s jobs.

The girls worked in a lab using Scratch, a free programming language and online community developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. They began by learning how to make a digital cat walk, turn and meow, and then moved onto more advanced functions. They also worked on creating story boards with talking characters in a scene, and they learned how 3-D printers work.

Alahna Harrison, 14, who is home-schooled in Coeur d’Alene, had two reasons for going to Dig’nIT camp: “I like puzzles and I want to help my dad program stuff.”

Harrison’s father is a mechanical engineer who makes airplane parts using a computer-controlled router, and Harrison said she wants to learn how to help him. She also thinks she can now show her 12-year-old brother how to make movies using GI Joe characters.

“I’d never heard of Scratch before. It’s a very kid-friendly program to use to make different programs and little animated movies,” Harrison said.

Shyanna Sharon, 14, will be a ninth-grader at Post Falls High School this fall. Her interest in science and technology drew her to the camp.

“I’ve always been interested in the fact that you have this tiny little piece of wire and metal, and somehow it can do as much stuff as a human can do, even more sometimes,” Sharon said. “It’s just fascinating how you can drag a couple words over here and end up making something really cool.”

She made three simple computer games during the week. “I caught on pretty fast.”

The learning curve was a bit steeper for teachers next door.

“A lot of them don’t have backgrounds in computer science,” Amador said. “And so they’re essentially starting where the kids are at learning this.”

Kim Hauck, a math teacher at Timberlake High School in Spirit Lake, said it had been a long time since she took a coding class.

But in just a few days, she had latched onto lesson ideas for all four math courses she teaches.

Teachers like her feel a need to keep up with technology to ensure their students are ready for college and careers.

“So many jobs today require computer programming,” Hauck said. “The job opportunities have changed so much, and that’s what is driving the changes in education.”

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