UNION COUNTY, NJ — Two dozen aspiring programmers came together at Union County College on Thursday, Aug. 27, for the first-ever edition of “Girls Gone Wired,” a free, interactive class that promoted women’s participation in computer programming.
One of the most valuable skills in today’s job market, according to “Girls Gone Wired” co-instructor Beth Ritter Guth, is writing code, which is why it’s important for communities to encourage programming literacy. Something as simple as being able to create apps, for example, can be lucrative.
But many Americans are intimidated by programming, especially women, who haven’t entered STEM-related fields at the same rate as men, added Guth. With classes like “Girls Gone Wired,” Guth hopes colleges can teach students that programming is not only a useful tool for men — it’s for everyone.
“There are so few people who know how to program, in any language. There’s a need for programmers, and then within that group of people, very few women actually go into programming. So we wanted to give people an opportunity to check it out, see what coding is about, see that it’s not that hard, and hopefully generate interest,” said Guth. “And it can actually be fun. It’s not some guy sitting in mom’s basement, hard coding line after line.”
Learning how to write code, said Guth, is essentially like learning a new language. And “once you learn one language, they’re all very similar,” she added. Every language has a word for “go,” for example, and when someone is learning a new language, they just have to learn how to say “go” in a slightly different way.
It hasn’t always been this simple. Programming has evolved over the years, said Guth, so that’s it more accessible than ever before. At one point, it involved painstakingly memorizing and writing code. Now, it’s much more like using building blocks, according to Guth, and there are plenty of free, visualized resources that anyone can use to great effect.
“The way that we teach it, there’s visual coding now, which didn’t exist in the old days. And that’s where you’re looking at blocks, where you drag and drop things, as opposed to hard coding where you’re writing lines and lines of code,” said Guth. “I think that often really surprises students. ‘Oh, I don’t have to sit there and memorize lines of code?’ That always surprises students, that they can do it visually using blocks that are very similar to LEGOs.”
In part due to the accessible nature of programming, said Guth, aspiring programmers don’t even need to take classes in order to know what they’re doing. Both of the instructors at “Girls Gone Wired” were self-taught. The key is to persevere through failure, while taking note of what goes wrong.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, about programming, is you have to constantly test what you’re doing. Younger people seem to get this concept, because of video games — if you die, you can start over,” said Guth, who enjoys using video games like “Fallout 3” as teaching tools. “Younger people will do it over and over and over again, because they have unlimited lives.”
programming language for iOS, the operating system used by Apple products. By the end of the day, many of them had animated their names, used iPads to sample iOS code, and participated in other activities.
But despite the various shifts in programming over the years, certain trends have stayed the same, including the relatively small number of women entering the workforce. Women study STEM-related fields at the same rate as men, said Guth. But when they leave college, they prefer to use that knowledge in other fields, such as education.
“Very few women program. It’s interesting, because women do go on to major in STEM-related fields, but then they don’t actually go into the fields when they graduate. They go into education, or maybe no field at all. So there’s a culture, the ‘brogrammer’ culture, that programming is only for guys, that only guys can do it,” said Guth. “Part of it is cultural, but most of it is practical. There’s just a lot of women who don’t go into coding.”
That’s why “Girls Gone Wild” was aimed at girls, said Guth, even though men were also encouraged to attend. To that end, plenty of young women took advantage of the opportunity. The class had a “huge response” from interested parties, said Guth, and many students hoped that the college would host similar classes in the future.
Nothing is finalized yet, but Union County College is anticipating future editions of “Girls Gone Wired.”
“The students loved it. Some of them really got it. They’ve never done it before, and after an hour, they were like pros. And the first time, it takes people a little longer, because they have to learn how things are structured,” said Guth. “In our exit poll, 100 percent of the students said that they would come back if we did another one.”