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Providence tech initiatives inspire middle, high school students

Programs foster passion for computer sciences across gender, socioeconomic backgrounds

This January marks the beginning of two new programs in Providence targeting gender and socioeconomic disparities in the technology sector. Brown students have partnered with the national initiative Girls Who Code and the local start-up Intracity Geeks to help equalize opportunities in tech by teaching girls and local middle school students, respectively, to code. Intracity Geeks launched Jan. 21 at Nathan Bishop Middle School, followed by the opening of the first Girls Who Code class at the Rochambeau Library the next day.

While the partnerships between these programs and Brown have not been formalized by University administrators, Intracity Geeks program founder and executive director Claude Arnell Millhouse said the response from Brown students “has been amazing.”

Brown computer science students act as assistant teachers to Millhouse, who leads the after-school program on Wednesdays.

“We don’t call the Brown students ‘teachers,’ we call them ‘heroes,’ because that’s what they are to these kids,” Millhouse said.

Gryte Satas GS, who is studying computer science, teaches the weekly Girls Who Code class.

“We are lucky and grateful to have this connection to Brown through Gryte,” said Ed Graves, director of the Rochambeau Library.

Girls Who Code is a national organization that “works to inspire, educate and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities,” according to the mission statement on its website.

The four classes in Rhode Island are offered for free to girls through public forums such as local private and public schools. The class at the library is the first to be open to the public, and the other three classes are hosted by private and charter schools.

Sixth- through 12th-grade girls are welcome to enroll in the club at the library, an arrangement originally proposed by Isabella Millard, a Girls Who Code alum. Millard ­— a current high school student — attended an intensive summer session hosted by the program in Boston and wanted to make the opportunity available to girls in her home state.

Thanks to the efforts of Graves and his staff, more than enough students were recruited to constitute a class at the library.

“We had to cap the class at 20, because that’s how many chairs we have in the computer lab,” he said.

Given the demand for programming education, Graves would like to expand the club in the future. Depending on the program’s success, the library could seek grant or state funds to expand its resources in order to serve more learners.

Satas said her lessons follow a national curriculum set by the organization, which uses Scratch — a program developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to introduce students to the concept of coding. The weekly curriculum begins with “telling a computer how to draw a square or a circle,” she said. 

“A few girls picked it up really fast and started making art immediately,” Satas said, adding that “Some girls physically got up and started acting it out. It was really interesting watching them.”

The class will create a website that serves the community in some way as part of its final project, empowering the girls to put their new skills to use beyond the classroom.

While 74 percent of girls show interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in middle school, only 0.3 percent of high school girls choose computer science as their intended college major, according to data published on the Girls Who Code website.

“At this point there aren’t explicit barriers for girls in CS. It’s that young girls might not get encouraged as much,” Satas said. “Showing girls that this can be a creative hobby is important for correcting that.”

Salas said she hopes to ignite an interest in computer science that extends beyond the classroom and encompasses potential future career paths in any field.

Millhouse also stressed the importance of exposure in creating opportunity for the students whom Intracity Geeks hopes to reach.

“My vision is to combat income inequality with access,” he said. “Having access combated income inequality for me.”

Millhouse learned to code at a young age at his public school in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He said this coding knowledge made it possible for him to rise up out of the poverty in which he was raised.

“I fell in love with technology and had an amazing career in tech,” he said.

Over the past few decades, Millhouse has taught many of his friends to code, helping them improve their own circumstances by securing higher paying jobs in tech.

“I remember thinking, there has to be a way to do this at an earlier age and on a mass scale,” he said.

It was with this vision that Millhouse went to the Providence After School Alliance — an organization aiming to broaden Providence students’ learning opportunities — last September with his plan for Intracity Geeks. Millhouse said PASA was “highly receptive” to his idea, as the organization has wanted to sponsor an after-school coding program for a long time.

“It was a matter of finding the right team,” he said. “We have that now, and we’re moving at rocket pace.”

Much of this nascent success has been made possible through the program’s connection to Brown.

Cara Dorris ’15, a Herald opinions columnist, met Millhouse when she applied for a marketing job at one of his businesses last fall. When Millhouse discovered Dorris attended the University, he offered her an alternative position — helping him develop his after-school program.

“We started connecting with Brown in November, which really made things take off,” Dorris said.

Dorris posted job listings for teachers on the Brown Job and Internship Board — the University’s internship finding site prior to BrownConnect — and immediately began receiving applications.

“I was surprised by how many kids at Brown want to be a part of this,” she said, adding that she still accepts applications from students interested in assisting with the program.

The program’s connection to the University extends beyond putting teachers in the classroom. Last semester, Millhouse and Dorris visited the computer science department to introduce their program to professors.

Research scientist John Raiti “invited us to bring the kids here to see the department,” Dorris said.

Millhouse said he is planning a field trip with the students to see robotics at Brown. He plans to teach them how to write code in Java so they will be able to control one of the robots, he added.

The curriculum for the Junior Bootcamp — Intracity Geeks’ first stage of programming — is still being developed. Millhouse uses input from Brown students to develop lesson plans that he tests on his sixth grade son, who then helps as a teaching assistant in the classes.

As of now, Millhouse said he hopes to teach students how to use HTML, CSS and Robotc, in addition to Java. Lego Mindstorms kits, which allow the kids to program robots on a miniature scale, have also been purchased for the class using funds from PASA.

“I have a unique approach to teaching,” Millhouse said. “The course is only 20 percent lecture-based,” he said, adding that the students use search engines and basic commands to apply the lessons on HTML and other languages.

Millhouse said he hopes his students will be able to go out and show their friends how to code, thus creating momentum toward a society in which coding is cool and inclusive.

“Most coding programs out there are really geeky and are aimed at geeks,” Millhouse said. “We are changing the concept of that word to show kids that girls can be geeks, as well as people of different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities.”

The Intracity Geeks participants and Brown computer science students will convene for a hackathon, an event arranged by student group Hack@Brown. Hack@Brown has invited Intracity Geeks to come to campus to watch a college hackathon Feb. 8 before participating in their own Junior Hackathon, a four-hour event hosted over two days at Nathan Bishop Middle School and Brown that will act as the culminating component of the Junior Bootcamp.

Ricky Medina ’16, general outreach coordinator for Hack@Brown, described a hackathon as “hundreds of kids coming together to build amazing things with code.” Dorris, a friend of Medina’s, contacted him on behalf of Intracity Geeks to ask for help from Hack@Brown in connecting the students in the program to the event.

Like the Girls Who Code final project, the Junior Hackathon will allow students to put their new skills to use in creating something of their own.

“If we train these kids, in eight years they are going to start businesses that will create the growth to transform and ignite Rhode Island’s economy,” Millhouse said.

“It was a perfect alignment of vision,” Medina said. “It would have felt irresponsible not to get involved.”

A previous version of this article misstated that Cara Dorris ’16 still receives inquiries from students interested in assisting with the program. In fact, she still accepts applications. The Herald regrets the error.

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