Girls Who Code Founder Awarded McGraw Prize in Education


Girls Who Code Founder Awarded McGraw Prize in Education

from The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education

Apr 17, 2018

Girls Who Code Founder Awarded McGraw Prize in Education

For 30 years, the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education has been one of the most prestigious awards in the field, honoring outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education through innovative and successful approaches. The prize is awarded annually through an alliance between The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation, McGraw-Hill Education and Arizona State University.

This year, there are three prizes: for work in pre-K-12 education, higher education and a newly created prize, for learning science research.

From among hundreds of nominations, the award team gave the Learning Science Research prize to Arthur Graesser, Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis. The higher ed award honors Timothy Renick, Senior Vice President for Student Success and Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University. And the pre-K-12 award goes to Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.

The three winners will receive an award of $50,000 each and an iconic McGraw Prize bronze sculpture. The prizes will be awarded at the 2018 ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego.

EdSurge spoke with Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, about what inspires her work, her hopes for the organization and girls around the world and what she has learned about coding—as an adult.

EdSurge: What did you have in mind when you decided to start Girls Who Code? Did you ever think about a different variation, say, Kids Who Code or something else?

Reshma Saujani: I always have been passionate about women and girls. Since the time I was young, I've been an activist in this space, thinking about how do you create opportunity and equity? How do you fight against discrimination?

I saw the gender divide in schools when I ran for Congress in 2010. And I immediately started asking: What's happening on this issue? What changes are needed? And how can I contribute to finding a solution? It was clear to me that I wanted to focus on girls and on technology—because I felt like that's where the jobs and opportunities are.

When you started Girls Who Code, did you know what the relevant numbers of women in computer science were? Where are the trends headed now?

In 1995, women made up about 40 percent of the computing workforce. Today they're less than 25 percent. In the 1980s, if you walked into any one of Atari's gaming camps, they pretty much would have been half boys, half girls. Most college classrooms had almost 40 percent of women in their CS classes. Now the number is less than 18 percent. And that's happening at a time when women are 50 percent of college graduates and almost over 40 percent of America's breadwinners so it's shocking. Technology is more a part of everything we do. We're more reliant on women to put food on the table and to pay the mortgage. But they're not going into these 21st century jobs.

Why do you think that’s so? What do you hear as you’ve talked to so many girls about what’s holding them back?

So much of it is culture. You can't be what you cannot see. When I ask most girls to describe what a computer scientist looks like, they say it's a guy—he's a nerd, you know, he's sitting in a basement somewhere, doing something that's very isolating. So girls immediately think, well, computers are for boys; they're not for me. And they opt out.

Just to push back on that for a second: You said that in the 1980s, we saw better participation by women in computer science. What happened?

You didn’t have that stigma. You had Ada Lovelace, you had the ENIAC women. In the beginning, computing jobs were seen as very female jobs. And in the 1980s, when the personal computer came out, it was very much targeted as a toy for boys. If you look at original Macintosh ads, you have this wonderful family and this little boy all staring at a computer. Also in the '80s, you saw the birth of the ‘brogrammer’ on television. So you saw nerdy guys on ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ and ‘War Games.’ All of these movies had this kind of dorky protagonist who was hacking something. That really became the image of a computer programmer.

We really hadn't seen that change until the success of ‘Hidden Figures’ and highlighting of Katherine Johnson. The movie has drawn a lot of attention.

How has Girls Who Code grown?

We taught 20 girls in New York City in 2012. Now we’ve reached nearly 90,000 girls with our free programs. There are over twelve million people who have touched our programs, whether it's through our website, watching our videos or buying our books. So we've had enormous, enormous reach. We’re in all 50 states. There’s not a moment of the day that goes by without a Girls Who Code club meeting in some town, some parish or some community center. It's pretty, pretty amazing.

One of the fascinating observations that you’ve made is that girls who get into coding start with a different question than boys do. Dig into that: What do you mean?

I think girls are natural-born change makers. When they get access to technology, they tend to ask: How can I use technology to make the world better? I see girls who say, ‘My mother is obese. How do I build an app about healthy eating?’ Or maybe: ‘My brother’s dyslexic. How do I build an app to help teach him to read?’ We had an alumna, Trisha, who was bullied in school. She built an app called ‘Rethink.’ Every time you're about to send something that's not so nice on a group text, Rethink asks you: ‘Are you sure you want to send this?’

When girls see something in their world or face some challenge or see family or friends confront a problem, they say, 'Wow—how do I connect my coding skills to change making?'.

Is it easier to make that connection now than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago? After all, software is more powerful, more capable than it was in the past.

That's a good point. And there are so many more companies out there. You see many more women using technology to solve some big social problem such as searching for a cure for cancer, or doing work like Anne Wojcicki (founder and CEO) at 23andMe. These amazing female entrepreneurs are popping up and connecting the dots—and girls are seeing it.

What does the recognition of this McGraw Hill Prize mean for you and for the work you’re doing?

It's such an honor to be in the company of people who have made such a difference in our world by recognizing the power and the potential of our children. That’s really the heart of my work. I always tell policy makers: ‘Don't take your eyes off gender.’ Having this recognition for the work we do for girls is really powerful and important.

What will the world look like in five years’ time?

I am so hopeful! We see these amazing young kids that are fighting for gun reform. I think the future is in good hands! We’re living in a time when we see our children being leaders and our leaders being children.

I’ve been in the company of amazing young women who are building incredible ideas and products to make our world better. We see that at Girls Who Code all the time. It is up to us to be the adults in the room, providing support and elevating our children's leadership.

Tell us about some of the girls who are making an impact.

Oh, there are so many! There’s Trisha Prabhu, who built that app called Rethink. We had these two young girls, Lucy and Maya, who were middle school and lived in New Jersey. They saw on the news that kids in Flint, Mich., were dying because they were drinking the water. So they built a website about lead poisoning. And they’re 11 years old!

I’ve seen some of our undocumented students build games about being undocumented and about immigration to help educate people about their plight. And then there was Aysha Habbaba, a Syrian refugee, who built an app to help Americans get to the polls. I could go on and on. We’re seeing girls use courage and bravery, and love and compassion in building out their ideas. That's what's so powerful.

Will we see more innovation—or different innovation?

It’s both: We’re going to see them solving problems that we’re not solving yet. And we also want to make sure that women’s interests are in the room. Here’s a silly example: I have the new Apple EarPods. But if you wear a pair of dangling earrings, those EarPods don’t work. You have to wonder about who was in the room when they designed these devices. That’s a trite example but you see it in so many other big ways, too.

What will success look like for Girls Who Code?

Someone said to me recently: You very seldom get the opportunity to solve a problem in a generation. And we have that.

We’re going to be wildly successful because the program is already working. We’re on track to achieve gender parity in entry-level computer science jobs by 2027. Our new data show that our girls are choosing to major in computer science (CS) or related fields at a rate that is 15 times higher than the national average. Our black and Latina alumni are choosing to major in CS or related fields at 16 times the national average. (Nationwide, only 4 percent of women choose to major in CS or related disciplines.) We taught 20 girls to code in 2012 and now we’ve reached 90,000—in just six years. Only 10,000 women graduated in CS last year. The problem is so, so bad—but we feel very confident that we can solve it.

And for you, personally—is that the goal? More women graduating with CS degrees?

When I’m in my 80s and I’m sitting in my rocker and thinking about did I make a difference, the answer will be found in the kinds of problems the girls solve. What I’m really passionate about is alleviating poverty. My parents came here as refugees. I've had every job that you could imagine—scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, working at Subway, you name it. So much of where I am today is because of the educational opportunities that I've had. I want to make sure that girls, especially underserved girls, have that. This is where the future of work is. And they’re great paying jobs.

How about the rest of the world? Will Girls Who Code go global?

That’s something we're discussing right now. I think it's coming soon. So many of our girls are the daughters of immigrants or immigrants themselves. I’ve started getting too many emails that say, ‘I’m in Nigeria or Cambodia and I’m teaching orphans to code.’ It is a natural born movement that's meant to go global.

What would change if you went global?

There are different problems in different places. In some countries, they don’t have a pipeline problem in the beginning—but they do have one in the middle. Look at India, for example. The challenge, from what I hear, is not about getting girls to major in computer science or CS-related fields; it’s encouraging them not to drop out three years into industry. For many young women, it’s seen as a status symbol to not work. Companies are starting to do interventions, including with mothers-in-law. So we need to really understand what is the plight of women in tech around the world and then ask where can we intervene and make a difference.

You've been an attorney, a politician. You haven’t been a coder. How much have you learned to code through this process?

I’ve had to! It's funny: You know, I always say that when I lost my political race, I learned to become brave—like developing a muscle. When I started Girls Who Code, I didn’t bother to learn how to code. I was just passionate about an idea and I didn't feel that the lack of my expertise was an impediment.

In so many ways, my experience was typical: I just thought I wasn't smart enough. I wasn’t technical. I wasn’t good at math. And so I just didn’t bother to pursue computer science.

But over the past six years, I've been learning along with the team. It can be frustrating. Coding doesn't come naturally to me. But when you're trying to code something or built something and it comes to life, there's a kind of euphoria. Like ‘Wow! I did it!’

I always tell people, even like parents of our girls, “You should learn how to code, too. It's never too late to pick on a skill that you didn’t think you could do.”

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