Engineering wins prestigious Google RISE award for Girls Coding Club initiative

The UAlberta Faculty of Engineering’s DiscoverE team is celebrating its second Google RISE award.

Edmonton—The University of Alberta Faculty of Engineering’s DiscoverE outreach program has won a prestigious Google RISE Awards for the second year running, and plans to use the prize money to grow its initiative to teach computer programming to girls.

DiscoverE is the only program in Canada to have won two RISE awards; last year it became the first Canadian group ever to win the honour.

Now in its fifth year, the RISE Awards support organizations that engage girls and underrepresented students in extracurricular computer science programs. 

This year’s award and $30,000 in prize money is directed at DiscoverE’s innovative Girls Coding Club, the only program in Canada teaching computer programming to girls from Grades 3 – 9.

“In DiscoverE we move from inspiring kids in science, technology, engineering and math to empowering them; to move them from consuming technology to producing technology,” said Mohamed El-Daly, the Faculty of Engineering’s outreach co-ordinator. “We don’t want them to sit around and wait for someone to write software for them, we want to give them the tools to address their problems or the problems of the community.”

The Girls Coding Club started in the fall of 2013 as an offshoot of coding programs offered to girls in the DiscoverE summer camps. The programs were so popular that DiscoverE established the Girls Coding Club. The 40 spots filled quickly, and there was a waiting list of 20 applicants.

The 2014 session started last week.

Girls in the club are split into two groups, from Grades 3 – 5 and 6 – 9. Both groups are taught Scratch and Python, a common computer language, and learn about concepts like sorting and sequencing, and how computers work. Mentors from the IT industry visit the club to talk about what they can accomplish with coding skills and career possibilities.

In the current session, girls are looking at problems they have around them to see if they can write a code to make things better.

“All of the spots filled up quickly and the feedback from parents and the girls was overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

Girls Coding Club co-odinator Alix Krahn, who is completing her computer engineering degree this spring, says it’s important that girls get specific encouragement in the high tech world.

“I had an affinity for math and finding patterns and that’s what led me to engineering. But no one ever suggested I look into computers or coding,” she said. “In the coding course in my first year of engineering I realized ‘Yeah—I’m good at this.’ Girls aren’t encouraged to look into this area but the boys in my class had been doing this since they were 12 or 13.”

She says the young programmers began to flourish in the course—some of them programmed fairly elaborate games and others took on personal coding projects in their free time at home.

Krahn hopes to see the coding club members begin to share their knowledge with friends.

One idea DiscoverE is investigating is to have girls from the coding club set up Girls Coding Club branches at their own schools and teach their peers and learn together with their peers.

“I think they know how each other thinks best, so they can explain the concepts to their peers better than I can I might use words or concepts they don’t know or things that don’t related to them,” she said.

El-Daly says peer-to-peer teaching would be a real success for the program.

“We believe that kids are better able to reach their peers than we are,” he said. “They can take ownership of their education and we will be there to support them and give them direction.”