U-M prof works with nonprofit to teach girls to code

Monday, July 16, 2018 - 2:31pm

Hamtramck High School located in Detroit, Michigan

Hamtramck High School located in Detroit, Michigan Buy this photo
Courtesy of Hamtramck High School

Growing up, Emily Harburg never thought she was good at science. She received a couple unsatisfactory test scores in science class and wrote the subject off. Years later, after receiving social anthropology and psychology degrees from Harvard University, she started working for Disney’s behavioral sciences team, and as part of the job, she learned to code.

Harburg discovered she liked coding. It allowed her to utilize her creativity and psychology background, two things not usually associated with computer science, she said. However, she realized very few women, and particularly women of color, enter the field. This inspired her to co-found Brave Initiatives, a Chicago-based non-profit that encourages high school girls to create social impact through coding, with teammates Jen Kamins, a recruiter from Motorola and Google, and Anna Bethune, a Northwestern PhD student studying education and social policy.

In January 2018, Brave Initiatives came to Hamtramck High School in Detroit. The Detroit chapter was spearheaded by Robin Brewer, Assistant Professor in the University of Michigan School of Information and core member of Brave Initiatives in Chicago. The non-profit runs half-day weekend workshops for high school girls, with the Chicago program running weeklong summer camps in addition to the workshops, all at no cost to participants. 

According to Brewer, the workshops seek to challenge perceptions of who can be successful in technology.

“It’s mostly an awareness thing,” Brewer said. “Statistics show you that if parents had a son and a daughter, They’re more likely to sign their son up for coding camps then their daughters. It’s about changing the narrative around who can be successful in technology fields, so women and girls see themselves as technology creators and designers.”

Harburg said changing this narrative requires showing girls how coding can positively impact their communities, which is why the cornerstone of Brave Initiatives is social impact.

“There’s been a lot of research that you’ll persist longer if you care about why you’re doing it, if you believe in the cause,” Harburg said. “We need people interested in bullying or depression working on Snapchat. We need different voices building these tools so that they’re having an impact on the world and communities arounds us and the girls themselves. Part of the goal of the camps and the workshops is that we’re really helping them see how technology is impacting the world and the positive effect that they can have if they’re a part of that. One of the focus areas is focusing on the impact piece because it really does affect the way society turns out.”

In the past, Brave Initiatives attendees have created everything from apps that help students choose healthier options within their school cafeterias to websites that tackle racism and stereotypes.

Aside from creating tools or games that teach participants about social causes, part of creating a positive impact can simply be storytelling through digital media. Brewer said one workshop in Detroit emphasized using personal narratives to create positive social impact.

“This past weekend we had a workshop on digital storytelling and communication design,” Brewer said. “We market it as building YouTube videos in terms of film and editing your own videos. But it was really about, ‘How do you communicate a message to someone effectively through technology?’”

Harburg added Brave Initiatives aims to humanize the field of computer science, overturning the general perception that coding is a socially disconnected activity. She believes that is one element of fixing the pipeline gap, a data-backed phenomenon in which boys -- usually young, white ones -- will learn how to code earlier than girls out of an interest in video games.

“I think there’s also a piece that [Brave Initiatives] is changing of just that it seems boring sometimes to code when you’re younger,” Harburg said. “It seems like it’s not actually working with people or the human-side, which again is a broad generalization that women prefer doing things that are more engaged with people, but some of that is true. Biology and environmental sciences tend to draw more women then some of the computer sciences or certain types of math, which don’t seem as connected to people, even though they definitely are.”

Brewer said Brave Initiatives’ workshops have so far been successful in fostering girls’ interest in code, adding the workshops are mostly headed by women in order to provide girls with role models in the field of computer science.

“I do think workshops have been effective,” Brewer said. “We’ve already seen how girls from previous workshops come back to the next workshop and the workshop after that. They don’t build on each other at all. The fact that they keep coming back for workshops shows that they’re at least interested in this area, which is good.”

Christina, a parent whose child attends Brave Initiatives and is quoted by first name only on the site, attested to the success of the program in keeping girls interested in the subject on the Brave Initiatives website.

"I have seen my daughter come home very excited about her time spent at the camp,” Christina said. “Considering it was a full work day, she did not once complain of boredom or lack of engagement."  

While Brave Initiatives’ workshops and camps explore the field of computer science, the program’s goal is simply to equip girls with the skills and confidence they need to code, instead of expecting them to pursue a computer science degree or career.

“We’re not necessarily saying everyone has to go to college and be a computer science major, but just in an event that they’re presented with some opportunity where they do have to code, or they have to use technology in some way, they feel like they have the skills to be able to do that and the confidence to be able to do that,” Professor Brewer said. “And that they can see how technology can impact a career and how it can impact different communities.”

Moving forward, Brave Initiatives organizers are looking to spread the program to more cities. Harburg said as she expands Brave Initiatives, she wants to be careful to not compromise the quality of the experience.

“Right now we’re in this process of trying to expand and grow the model,” Harburg said. “I think one of the things we’re figuring out is how do you do that in a way that’s really smart and being thoughtful about what actually works. Obviously there’s a lot of online programs to do different things, but we’re really trying to create an experience for girls.”

A major part of extending the program’s reach, Harburg said, is identifying leaders who will help maintain Brave Initiative’s positive impact.

“One of the big things in spreading and expanding is finding the right people, the right collaborators, who are gonna help create these safe spaces for girls to thrive,” Harburg said.