A group of teenage girls sat huddled around computers at the Wade Edwards Foundation & Learning Lab, eagerly experimenting with the code in a choose-your-own adventure game.
They each imagined their own scenarios for what lurked behind the doors of the game: a surprise tickling, a splendid feast, even a pack of hungry zombies.
“They’ll eat your brains!” warned Destinee Bates, 17, a senior at Wakefield High School in Raleigh. She then added carefully constructed lines of instructions in a programming language called Python to the game’s framework to get her desired results.
The girls, most of whom are in high school, are part of Hi-Tech Teens, a new, free program at the Wade Edwards Foundation & Learning Lab on St. Mary’s Street near Broughton High School.
The aim of Hi-Tech Teens is to give teenagers, especially girls, access to the fundamentals of computer science. Groups of teens meet once each week – girls-only on Thursdays and a co-ed group on Saturdays – with mentors from local tech companies and N.C. State University.
The program lasts six weeks and will be ongoing, with a second session expected to begin this spring.
On Thursday, Bates worked with Jen Tsan, a doctoral student at N.C. State who is studying computer science education. Tsan guided Bates through the exercise, asking her questions to get her thinking about how she could play with the code in the game.
Bates said she is drawn to computer science because she knows that when she scrolls through Tumblr or checks Facebook, that a programmer was a big part of creating the experience she enjoys.
“All of that is coding, which is really cool, because someone created it,” she said.
The program got its start when Betsey McFarland, executive director of the Wade Edwards Foundation & Learning Lab, known as the WELL, teamed up with computer scientist Rennie Martin.
McFarland had always wanted to host a technology program at the WELL, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs such as tutoring and SAT preparation. Then Martin called with the same idea. Both wanted to focus on girls and young women to encourage them to participate in computer science and consider the field a career path.
Women made up just 18 percent of computer science major graduates in the United States in 2010, according to a report from the National Science Foundation.
At the very least, they wanted young women to have exposure to the idea that computer science was something they could do.
“Even if you don’t think you want to go into computer science or you don’t want to go into tech, think of something that you love and computer science touches it,” McFarland said. “There’s so many different ways to apply the skills you learn.”
Brittany Johnson, a doctoral student in computer science at N.C. State, heads a group there called Women in Computer Science. They work on academic and career development for women in the field, as well as outreach to younger students.
Johnson worked with McFarland and Martin on how to make the program appealing to girls. They wanted to strike a balance between acknowledging the small share of women in computer science and technology and not making girls feel singled out.
Johnson said girls need to feel encouraged and welcomed but also to know how to work with their male counterparts. And it’s important for boys to see their peers working in computer science as well.
For all children, Johnson said she wants them to think of computer science as a field for everyone, and one that demands a wide range of skills.
“It’s not just coding,” she said. “It’s learning, it’s collaborating, it’s communication.”