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SHS Girls Who Code not only teaches skills but builds a sisterhood to support each other in male-dominated field

BARBARA SHERMAN - Caitlin Toohey (left), who is mentoring Sherwood High School's Girls Who Code group, leads an exercise in the computer lab with (from left) junior Carrie Nguyen, junior Brooke Mylander, senior Sophia Antrim, junior Alese Semingson, junior Brenna Cosio, junior Kianna O'Sullivan and junior Elaine Meslow.When many people think of computer coding, they picture guys writing lines of gibberish, but coding is responsible for the operation of everything from lumbering Hyster equipment to tiny cell phones.

And because Sherwood High School has long been at the forefront of providing its students with the latest innovations and technology to prepare them for future careers, it is not surprising that the school now has a Girls Who Code group.

According to its website, Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology sector. It accomplishes this with programs to educate, inspire and equip middle and high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields, so Girls Who Code was a natural fit for SHS.

SHS computer science teacher Terrel Smith along with three SHS students – juniors Brooke Mylander, Brenna Cosio and Carrie Nguyen - got the ball rolling last spring on starting the group, which got matched with mentor Caitlin Toohey, a materials engineer with Hyster-Yale Group in Fairview.

"The high-tech industry is a high-pay, high-demand career path," Smith said. "In the high-tech industry, only 18 percent of the workers are women – that's the culture. There are opportunities there, and it is important for the K-12 system to provide opportunities for students to explore high-tech careers."

Toohey, who signed up to be a mentor after learning about Girls Who Code, added, "The big thing now is encouraging girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, because many get little exposure to them in high school otherwise. I think it's fun, and I want others to think it's fun."

The SHS group of 13 girls meets every other Monday in the computer lab, and for the Jan. 9 session, Toohey put them through a series of exercises that led them to narrow down a list of potential community-impact projects to work on: the environment or stress.

"This is building teamwork," Toohey said. "The primary goal is not necessarily to become expert computer programmers but to build a strong sisterhood so they learn they can count on each other, especially in a male-dominated field."

She also tried to explain the basics of coding by saying, "There are the basic structures of all programming languages, and once you learn one, the rest are easier. I compare it to learning a foreign language or music.

"Coding is behind-the-scenes – what you put into the computer – and the output is what you want to see come out."

Toohey even knows her coding history, referring to Ada Lovelace, who could be considered the godmother of coding for doing the first computer programming in the 1800s. And Katherine Johnson was a pioneering female coder who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (and is one of the real-life women portrayed in the current movie, "Hidden Figures").

Also working hard to provide opportunities for students in the high-tech field is Smith, who just happens to be president of the Oregon Computer Science Teachers Association and provided some shocking statistics about the lack of high-tech classes available to students across the state.

"There is an opportunity gap when it comes to offering coding classes," he said. "I see 150 students a day, and in Wilsonville, for example, there is one small class of 15. Schools side by side may differ widely in their offerings, and when the economy has gone down, SHS hangs in there while other districts cut classes.

"Twenty percent of schools in Oregon have coding classes, which means four in five don't. And less than 10 schools in Oregon have a full-time computer ed teacher. That's a pathetic situation – that those students don't get to experience high-tech education."

BARBARA SHERMAN - Members of the SHS Girls Who Code group have fun listing their activities on a poster board.Smith has even testified at the Legislature that it is the responsibility of adults to provide a full spectrum of educational offerings, and on Sept. 14, 2016, he made a presentation at the White House with the executive officers of Computer Science for All, a nationwide organization, about the innovations in the Sherwood School District.

The passage of Measure 98 last November included the establishment of career-technical education programs in high schools and access to college-level courses in high schools.

"The passage of Measure 98 means there will be a need for more teachers and staffing to meet the needs of schools," said Smith, who came to SHS in 1983 and started teaching computer science classes.

Meanwhile, Toohey credits Brooke, Brenna and Carrie with spearheading the SHS Girls Who Code group, explaining that the program includes both summer-immersion and school-year programs.

As for how SHS gained a Girls Who Code group, Brooke explained, "Brenna and I took a (computer) Visual Basics class, and we were the only two girls in a class of 42. We started the group, which isn't an official SHS club, and Carrie was our first real member."

Carrie added, "I was already friends with Brooke and Brenna, and it wasn't alien to me to be the only girl in a class. Last year I was the only sophomore girl to take AP Chemistry. I'm also into art as well so I'm trying to find a happy medium."

Brenna said that she has always liked technology but didn't think she had the skills to learn to code.

"I took Photoshop and didn't like it, but I liked computer technology and Visual Basics," she said. "I really liked having Brooke by my side in the Visual Basics class, and we got involved with the tech community through ChickTech (a nonprofit that creates fun, hands-on tech events to empower women to stay in tech and encourages girls to join, according to its website). I wanted to give others the same opportunities."

Brooke described herself as "always into technology," starting in the sixth grade when she taught herself to Photoshop and in eighth grade when she participated in Code Academy. She became friends with Brenna, and they got involved in ChickTech.

Brooke was accepted into a Girls Who Code summer immersion session in Los Angeles for seven weeks and conveniently stayed with an aunt, uncle and cousins. "There was a bunch of opportunities for field trips, we presented our final projects to AT&T executives, and it solidified what I want to do," she said.

Brooke also won an award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a national non-profit organization that works to increase the meaningful participation of girls and women in computing, according to its website. "She was one of only three in Oregon," Toohey said.

Toohey, Brooke, Brenna and Carrie are all happy with the response to establishing Girls Who Code at SHS. They recall one student who said, "I'm ready to be a real girl who codes."

Brooke said it's exciting "when you accomplish something and see that it's not as hard as it looks," and the Girls Who Code trio hopes to expand the program to the middle school level.

In the meantime, they are very happy that they are SHS students, where the sky is literally the limit.

"We're lucky here," Brooke said.

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