CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WEEK | Ursuline girls just want to have (coding) fun

Joseph Kenny | jkenny@archstl.org
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After school on a recent weekday, about 20 girls, freshmen through seniors, plopped down in front of computers and gladly extended their day of learning.

The Ursuline Academy Girls Who Code Club began in September, gathering in the computer lab once a week after school. The club offers a fun, project-based curriculum covering topics such as artificial intelligence, graphics, game design, cryptography and mobile development.

Maddie Raineri, a senior, enjoys seeing how computer programs are made. "We did a generative art project. You can make art or a game -- we did video games, which is super cool," she said.

Maddie had an interest in coding but didn't have the opportunity to pursue it. Code was a bit intimidating at first, she said, but she relaxed when she realized "it's just like learning another language."

Emily Mertens, also a senior, enjoys making games and art projects. "It's awesome to see how things are made," she said. "We played games and used computers our whole life, and we never knew how they worked until now."

Emily intends to take a coding class in college and expects that it will help her in her career. "A club like this gets girls motivated and shows girls it's not just boys who make fun things ... . We can be good at it too."

Jaime Gilligan, a theology teacher at Ursuline, serves as a club moderator along with Alex Mooney, an information technology teacher. "I'm really impressed by what all the girls have learned and accomplished, just how well-planned it is," Gilligan said.

The girls are on level one this year, but they can advance levels each year. Ursuline will offer a computer programming course the next school year for the first time.

"I saw such a need for it," Gilligan said. "Computer science is integral to every field."

In partnership with leading technology companies, Girls Who Code's mission is to close the gender gap in technology. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 14 percent of computer science majors in college are female, a decrease from 37 percent in 1984.

By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs open in the computing-related fields, but the United States is on pace to fill 29 percent of them, according to Girls Who Code. At current rates, just 3 percent of the jobs will be filled by women.

"I really want to bring those opportunities to our students," Gilligan said.

Robin Paone, principal network support at AT&T, is a volunteer instructor for Girls Who Code assigned to the school.

As an expert in the field, she said the class "started from ground zero, and they have learned about all the components of software, how to do looping, conditional statement and all these concepts for software development built into the monthly projects we do."

The Ursuline students use a versatile tool from scratch.mit.edu and "have completely blown me away at how much these girls have been able accomplish in such a short time," Paone said.

Reagan Becnel, a freshman, said that she joined the club because she wanted to try something different. "I look forward to going to it every Tuesday. Once I get to college I'll be able to help other people."

Michelle Slesinski, a junior, said she gets a sense of freedom from making whatever she wants. At the time she was making a loop -- an image in motion. Her dad is an engineer and her mom has taught computer programming. "I have all these coding books at my house," she said. "Everyone else in my family knew how to code except me."

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