We’re teaching the students not just technical skills, but also encouraging creativity, teamwork, and leadership skills.
Marisa Torres
Girls Who Code students and volunteers pose as a team

Middle School Coding Club Caps Off Another Successful Year with Help from Livermore and Sandia Trio

Monday, May 6, 2019

For students interested in learning coding and computer technology, the Girls Who Code clubs in the Livermore middle and high schools are the place to be. Now in their third year, many of the clubs are as popular as ever, buoyed mostly by volunteers from Computation and other LLNL organizations.

Girls Who Code is a wide-reaching, national program that teaches participants coding, web management, and other developmental traits in a fun and friendly environment. LLNL provides role models and mentors—called facilitators—for the after-school clubs who work closely with teachers at each school site. The teachers handle the logistics of equipment, location, and scheduling.

Computation Group Leader and Bioinformatics Software Developer Marisa Torres has been involved in the program all three years as a facilitator for the Mendenhall Middle School Girls Who Code club, which recently wrapped up another successful year. Aided by fellow facilitators Masha Aseeva and Ellen Le (Sandia’s first Girls Who Code volunteer), Torres spent an hour and a half each week helping students explore the world of coding and computer science.

Figure 1.The Mendenhall Middle School Girls Who Code club celebrates after “graduation” in January 2019. Volunteers facilitators Masha Aseeva, Marisa Torres, and Ellen Le are in the second row on the left.

The club saw a consistent attendance of 26 students each week. And it’s not geared just to girls. Torres says, for the first time, several male students signed up and regularly attended the Mendenhall sessions.

“I think this was the most successful year yet,” says Torres. “Masha, Ellen, and I shared the load, our students were enthusiastic and hard-working, and we fell into a nice rhythm.

“What’s great about the clubs is that we’re teaching the students not just technical skills, but also encouraging creativity, teamwork, and leadership skills. The students show up after school even though Mendenhall now offers an elective app coding class as part of the curriculum.”

Figure 2. Every Girls Who Code club meeting is different, as they’re geared specifically to the interests of the students. During one meeting in January, former LLNL scientist Clinton Torres stopped by to talk to the participants about the coding logic needed to keep a drone flying. He demoed a small racing drone that he built.

Although every meeting is different, as they’re tailored specifically toward the students, the group typically works through sessions created by the national body, with each section lasting four to five weeks, picking up a new skill at the end. Participants choose their projects and work at their own pace using the technical skills they’ve learned together. These workshops accumulate into a year-end project, where the members put all their skills together to make a final project of their choosing.

This year, the Mendenhall students collectively decided to create “murder mystery” apps—games where a crime is committed, and a player must unravel clues to crack the case—using Scratch, an introductory programming language. Each student then had the opportunity to present their final project to their peers, club volunteers, parents, and administrators from the school district.

“I was blown away by the attention to detail the students injected into their apps,” Torres says. “They included interesting riddles, well-conceived story lines and characters, and a lot of humor.

“The presentations were very important to the overall process. In programming—and in life—it’s essential to be able to communicate your ideas and receive feedback. Programming is very much a team sport.”

The Mendenhall club culminated with a graduation ceremony at the end of January, replete with family members in attendance, certificates, and even custom awards, chosen by the three LLNL facilitators and teacher coordinators, Amber Catlett and Jaymes Sabater. (Torres says Catlett and Sabater deserve much of the credit for the success of the club.)

Figure 3. A Girls Who Code club member is demoing her project from Mendenhall’s app coding class. She created an app that helps teach toddlers shapes and colors.

But that wasn’t really the end. On Mar. 29, Torres, Aseeva, and Le, took 7 of the 26 club participants on a field trip to the business offices of Pocket Gems, a mobile-game company based out of San Francisco. At Pocket Gems, students toured the offices, met the team, and heard from a panel of developers about their career paths and other insights about the tech sector. The students had the opportunity to demo their projects to Pocket Gems staff, including the Pocket Gems Chief Executive Officer. Many of the Pocket Gems 23 participants expressed that it was “powerful and humbling” to have the girls on site and to see the girls’ enthusiasm about the projects they’d created. The field trip was funded with a grant from the national Girls Who Code organization.

“The mentorship is the thing that guides me and keeps me coming back to volunteer,” says Torres, who also exercises that skill as a group leader in GS-CAD. Torres has had a busy start to 2019—she also coordinated the Women in Data Science (WiDS) regional event held at LLNL’s HPC Innovation Center in early March.

“Ultimately, I’d love to think the work we’re doing will help close the gender gap in coding and tech careers in a decade.” says Torres, “But near term, if the kids are having fun and gaining confidence, that’s a huge win and well worth the time.”