Breaking the code
Seeing students huddled around computers at the Gervais Elementary School library isn't an uncommon sight.
However, last Wednesday afternoon, there were more than 50 fourth- and fifth-grade girls sitting around computers and exchanging ideas. Many sit in pairs, sharing a desktop, while others congregate in groups of four, five and six, Chromebooks open, excitedly conversing with each other.
It's the first-ever term of Girls Who Code at GES — a weekly gathering in which fourth- and fifth-grade students meet at lunch for girls-only lessons on the basics of computer programming.
It's a daunting management task for school librarian Gina Deffenbaugh on Oct. 23, bouncing from desk to desk answering questions and troubleshooting problems for the young coders who are learning Scratch — a child-friendly, drag-and-drop coding language developed by MIT.
Principal Creighton Helms is away on business, leaving Deffenbaugh as the solitary steward for more than four dozen eager learners. Many students wait patiently for Deffenbaugh, others ask each other for advice, and a few boldly plow forward, tinkering with the setting to change the way the pre-scripted characters move and interact on the screen.
The popularity of the class, which has met three times so far this term, is an overwhelming, if not welcome problem for the staff to solve.
"I was expecting 10 to 15 girls, and we had 62 who showed up," Helms said about the first Girls Who Code meeting at Gervais Elementary. "We didn't want to turn anyone away with those numbers. We're four times bigger than we anticipated."
No two people can answer all the inquiries that pop up with raised hands — let alone one person with Helms out for the day. Many of the students decide not to wait and simply explore what they can do with Scratch, adding new sounds and animations, or changing the walking speed and speech bubbles on the animation. It's chaotic, but it's precisely the kind of exploratory problem solving that Helms wants to see the students take away from their 45-minute sessions.
"I think that one of the things that we have stolen from kids, especially in my world of K-5, is these opportunities for critical thinking," Helms said. "The curriculum is scripted — everything is compartmentalized. We're now seeing these kids who genuinely lack the ability to think for themselves, to problem solve in the moment. The curiosity is sucked out of them because we have not fostered an environment where we say if you're interested in this, go dig around."
Helms is entering his third year as the lead administrator at GES, and his vision for the school is one that embraces the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) model of offering opportunities for students. Girls Who Code is one arm of that body, which came about after Helms noticed that boys in the school's newly-introduced LEGO robotics club last year outnumbered the girls by a four-to-one margin.
"What we found is not uncommon at all — when you have co-ed STEM opportunities, it's not unusual for the girls to be intimidated," Helms said. "They shy away from it. They hear these false narratives that science is for boys."
Helms looked for ways to address this disparity and discovered Girls Who Code, a nonprofit developed in 2012 to close the gender gap in technology-based careers. Since its inception, Girls Who Code has spread to more than 1,500 clubs across the country, teaching programming, robotics and web design to young girls.
"I like it; it's fun," Gervais fourth-grader Rosemary Broadhurst said. "I want to be an engineer when I grow up, so this is perfect for me."
The program isn't meant to exclude boys, but to provide a comfortable hub for girls to learn and socialize. Helms sees it not as a singular entity, but one of many STEAM opportunities he'd like Gervais Elementary to offer, giving students a wide variety of subjects to choose.
"Rocket club, after school art, LEGO robotics, coding - there's a STEAM opportunity for every child that wants to do it," Helms said. "We're able to do it so that every kid who wants to do it is not turned away."
At the end of the 2018-19 school year, Gervais Elementary earned the state's highest grade for both reading and math growth. It's the first time GES has been recognized as such, according to Helms, and it proves to him that if the school provides diverse learning opportunities, the student body will eagerly take advantage of it.
"Our kids are learning at the fastest pace that the state measures it. We're on the right track, but at the end of the second year, I thought, 'What is our identity?'" he said. "Without an identity, it's hard to say that we're anything other than that cookie-cutter school."
As a former high school science teacher, Helms is passionate about fostering those educational opportunities at GES, particularly with a community that is 70 percent Latinx and socioeconomically disadvantaged.
"Those are demographics that traditionally don't have access to STEAM opportunities," he said.
The numbers at Girls Who Code, where nearly 90 percent of fourth- and fifth-grade girls participate, only further prove to Helms that if the school offers an engaging and educational activity, the students will come.
"I foresee this as very promising because it tells me now that we can start to strategize about what staff member can take this on," he said.
Where the club goes from here is the next problem to solve, but a welcome one for sure. Helms envisions an opportunity for GES to meet with other schools to compare and show off their coding projects — spreading Girls Who Code to other districts and watching it take off as it has done in Gervais.
"You see schools out there doing that, and you think I can do that too," he said. "All of a sudden you have four schools, then eight schools.
"There's just these pockets of formative experiences that they have. I think that's where I'm really passionate about. To be really intentional that every one of our kids has a formative experience — that they don't just show up, go through the moments and go home — that there's something they engage with and step back and think, 'Wow! That was really cool.'"
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