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Online App Teaches Girls Computer Coding

Women face obstacles in the male-dominated field of computer technology, but new initiatives are teaching girls to write computer programs. One online application, from a startup called Vidcode, is bridging the gap between young girls and technology.

One-hundred-fifty New York girls and boys were recently given a practical challenge: to use computer coding on the Vidcode website to make a video that helps abandoned animals in shelters.

This "hackathon," or mass programming event, was sponsored by the New York City Department of Education in cooperation with Vidcode, and the contestants gathered at Microsoft offices in Times Square.

Like most American kids, they use computers and smartphones often to play games and communicate, but unlike many, they are learning the basics of JavaScript coding, the underlying script that lets computers do their job.

"You get to use a lot of coding blocks to program stuff. It is really cool," said student Natalie Leow, as she and her partner worked at their laptop.

On the other side of the country in the West Coast office of Vidcode, the startup's co-founder and CEO, Allie Diracles, demonstrated the process, which teaches computer programming as users make videos to post on sites like YouTube. The programming event — which is aimed at girls, but also welcomes boys — allows users to select graphics, videos and photos, and upload them to the site, Diracles explained.

"And then on our software, they will use programs and scripts and write their own computer programs to modify that content," she said.

The background code that enables each step of the process appears on the screen.

Range of skills

At the New York hackathon, two excited contestants high-fived their teacher as they learned they were winners for their short video.

"You really need a lot of intelligence and math," said winner Nayely Torres, "because sometimes, to make an animal move, you have to think about the angle you want it to go to and how many steps you want it to move."

The web-based Vidcode app teaches coding step by step, and these girls — like their male counterparts — thrive in this competitive atmosphere, said Don Miller, Senior Director of Computer Science Academics at the New York City Department of Education.

"We don't see girls intimidated," Miller said. "We see them taking the lead in groups and project managing."

Girls learn best through group activities that touch on their interests, says Vidcode's Diracles.

Future inspiration

The creativity, excitement and inspiration was evident during the event, but didn’t stop there. Participants had big plans for how they would use their programming skills in the future.

"I would create a video game one day, or a TV show," said Zara Tarafgar, who said she is following in her father's footsteps by writing computer code.

These girls are breaking down stereotypes, according to Raquel Cardona, director of the Software Engineering Programs for New York's public middle schools and high schools.

"When you think 'coder,' you think male," Cardona said. "You think nerdy, you don't think creative, at least traditionally. I think we're starting to change that."

One of the best parts? Learning about computer programs while also promoting a good cause, says student Sierra Scott, one of the day's winners.

"I think that we did great because we put a lot of effort into it and we said helpful things to raise awareness to help dogs and all animals around the country," she said.

And they mastered important computer skills in the process.