National organization “Girls Who Code” chapter opens in Decorah

Shasa Sartin and Olivia Enquist

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Between the ages of six and 12, 66 percent of girls are interested in computer science. By the teenage years, that number will drop to 32 percent, only to drop once more to four percent upon entering college.

Girls Who Code is a nationally-recognized nonprofit organization that was founded in 2012 as a response to the lack of women within computer science-related fields. The program aims to increase the number of women in computer science through national programs that teach programming skills to middle school and high school girls.

Decorah’s Girls Who Code club began when Cerrisa Snethen expressed her concern for girls in technology over a Facebook post. Snethen is now the founder and one of the facilitators of the local chapter. Snethen realized that Decorah needed to do more to support girls’ interest in technology and she saw Girls Who Code as an opportunity to create that support.

The club has held two meetings and currently has eleven members. They meet weekly at Art Haus where Luther computer science students, along with community members, teach girls how to code.

Luther student volunteer Nell Himlie (‘21) described how she became involved with Girls Who Code.

“I heard about it from one of my friends who is in computer science,” Himlie said. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it, but I am so glad that I did. I wish that I had had a Girls Who Code around me [when I was younger] because it would have definitely inspired my love of programming sooner.”

Students like Himlie are exactly why Snethen wanted to bring this group to Decorah.

“As a woman who works in technology, I was having this frustrating realization that anytime something went wrong architecturally I had to reach out to a dude to fix it,” Snethen said. “As a child I had always had an aptitude for computers. However, when I got into middle school I remember having this feeling when I would walk into the tech lab or the robotics lab that this was [a] boy space.”

Snethen explained some of the statistics about women in computer science and related fields. In 1984, almost 40 percent of all computer science graduates in America were women. Today that number has dropped to 18 percent. She also discussed a study which predicted that by 2020 there will be approximately 1.4 million new jobs in technology. Americans are only forecasted to hold 29 percent of those jobs, and only three percent are predicted to be women.    

“I got on Facebook and I basically vented about it,” Snethen said.

As a result, some of her Facebook friends reached out and expressed their shared upset about the lack of equal representation in the technology field. This is how Snethen became acquainted with Girls Who Code.

“[It is a] national program with girls across cities, and the coolest thing about it is that they are not just learning to code to be marketable in their careers. There’s a real heartbeat behind this organization,” Snethen said.

This led a small group of Decorah community members to network and fundraise to make the Girls Who Code club a reality. One of those community members was Associate Professor of Theatre Lisa Lantz. Lantz is working on introducing a makerspace in the Center for Fine Arts, and she finds parallels between that addition and supporting Girls Who Code.

“A makerspace, literally, is a place for people to come together to make things,” Lantz said. “A makerspace is a place to provide the tools for your imagination to run wild.”

Lantz believes it is also important for Luther to actively support Girls Who Code. She emphasized the fact that Luther is encompassed in the Decorah community, too.

“This is an opportunity to reach out to the youth within our community and show them that Luther is a welcoming, inspiring, fun, supportive space for them to exist in,” Lantz said. “[Luther is] able to help provide accessibility to students who otherwise may not have access to this. At its core that’s what Girls Who Code is all about: that every single girl deserves a chance to excel.” 

Along with support from members of the Luther community, Art Haus have made themselves the location for the groups work.

“[Girls Who Code] is sort of housed within Art Haus,” Lantz said. “This is fantastic because the director of Art Haus, Shannon Dallenbach Durbin, has a background in technology. In her previous position she did a lot with the robotics clubs and technology work. She has great experience with promoting that kind of coursework for students and she agreed to be a home base to the Girls Who Code club.”

As for the future of Girls Who Code Decorah, Snethen wants to leave that up to the girls themselves. She believes her role is one of affirmation and support. 

“Basically, the vision is to let them steer the ship,” Snethen said. “To hold a space for them to see what they create and to just be there to cheer them on.”

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