Celebrating girls who code

Posted on Monday, March 23, 2015

By Nathalie Vallieres

Where are the female equivalents of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg? Why do less than 1% of high school girls select computer science as a university major?

As an academic institution, we need to find innovative ways to attract women into our engineering and technology classrooms. Increasing the much-needed presence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) begins with nurturing the next generation.

As the Faculty of Engineering liaison officer, I often speak to young female students who excel in mathematics and science and yet are reluctant to choose engineering as a field of study. Many of these young women are intimidated by the gender gap found in university classrooms.  Although we are seeing improvements in the number of women choosing areas such as biomedical and chemical engineering, approximately 85% of students in engineering streams are male. I believe that young women should be encouraged to develop their technology skills and I want to help empower them to become passionate builders of technology.

Creating opportunities for girls in technology and engineering is a priority at the Faculty of Engineering. There are many strategies in place to help prospective students choose STEM fields as postsecondary concentrations but unless female students are exposed to opportunities and mentors in high school, many will not realise that studying technology can lead to a rewarding and stimulating career. We need to develop programs that reach out to students before they get to university. This is where Go Code Girl fits in.

With the support of Professor Catherine Mavriplis, Chair of NSERC, I created a collaborative workshop with Carleton University. Instructors Gail Carmichael (Carleton) and Emilie Cobbold (uOttawa) have been instrumental in developing a curriculum that is relevant and appealing. The two-day interactive workshop teaches participants basic programming, web development and gives them a chance to play with hardware such as Raspberry Pi’s and Arduinos.

After two very successful Go Code Girl events, I approached ONWIE, the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering, about bringing Go Code Girl to other Ontario universities. The tenth anniversary of ONWIE had just been celebrated and Go Code Girl, with its focus on technology skills, was a perfect fit. Given that computer skills are becoming increasingly rare, especially among young girls, ONWIE agreed to support the program and Go Code Girl is now being offered in seven other universities across Ontario.

We need to promote IT as a challenging, dynamic, fun career filled with endless opportunity.  It was not difficult to convince others that a workshop of this kind would benefit girls and give female mentors a chance to showcase their success and passion for technology.

The time is now to encourage girls to opt for STEM programs.

Today, the power of mentorship has never been more important to help young girls and women not only remain passionate about science, technology, engineering and math, but also to believe that they, too, will be future leaders in these fields.

Go Code Girl is about female empowerment and changing the face of technology, one girl at a time.

Nathalie Vallières has been a liaison officer at the Faculty of Engineering since 2012.

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