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How The 'Girls Who Code' Program At UW-Milwaukee Has Adapted During The Pandemic

Girls Who Code is a program offered at UW-Milwaukee. Pictured participants celebrate at their graduation in 2019.
Christine Cheng
Girls Who Code is a program offered at UW-Milwaukee. Pictured participants celebrate at their graduation in 2019.

Girls Who Codeis a national program that encourages young women to pursue skills in computer science. Not only can young women in middle and high school learn programs like Python to help them code, but they also have an opportunity to build a community in a male-dominated profession.

In 1999, 37% of computer scientists were women, but today it’s only 24% according to Christine Cheng. She's an associate professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who helped bring Girls Who Code to UWM in 2016. "It's been a really surprising program for me because when we started I didn't know if we'd get 20 students or 30 students. But every semester we've been getting around 50 to 60 students, which I'm gonna say is far greater than anything we expected when we started," Cheng says.

Like so many things, the pandemic changed the program. The girls could no longer meet in person and the classes were moved online. But, this created some unique opportunities. Sammie Omranian is a phD student studying computer science at UWM and is an administrator for the program. "We saw a growth in the number of the participants because now the class is online, so more students around Wisconsin could take the classes, they don’t need to be in person," she notes.

Cheng also found that doing the program from home meant participants were more at ease. "Some of our instructors pointed out that the girls were a lot more relaxed because they were working from home," she explains. "If they couldn't attend the class, for one reason or another, it was very easy to share resources for them because the sessions were recorded, and we would just forward the recordings to them."

Girls Who Code educates students in a variety of ways. They can learn about variables, data types, and how to make coding fun. Cheng points out that even if members don't take up coding, they can still use the skills they've learned in different ways. "I'm hoping that the positive experience of learning how to code, being in a community of learners full of girls with college students and graduate students overseeing them and interacting with them, will help them down the road," Cheng says.

The program also aims to instill confidence in the girls. "I tell my students that sometimes you need to just work on the code... for hours and hours or days. But never give up," Omranian adds. "Be brave, not perfect. You know, as a girl, women, we always like to be perfect. I always just remind them [to] be brave. Just give it a shot. You know, just put that code in there. It may work, it may not."

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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