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High school students teach ‘supergirls’ to code

Jo Jo [left] and Edie at their Supergirls Code club.

A national statistic says that while women earn about 40 percent of all math, statistics and physical science undergraduate degrees, only 18 percent of all computer and information science degrees are earned by women.*

That’s a trend two local high school students are working to change.

Earlier this year, Kailin Zhang and Sophie Maniscalco combined their affinity for computers and kids by founding “Supergirls Code,” a program that provides workshops and after-school clubs to elementary school girls. The goal is to foster a love of computer science through coding.

Zhang and Maniscalco are Kode with Klossy scholars and hackathon participants but they wanted more.

Kode with Klossy is a national program launched in 2015 by model Karlie Kloss. What began as a sponsorship for 21 girls to participate in a two-week coding class now offers 50 coding camps in 25 cities. Hackathons are marathons that bring computer programs together with others involved in software development for a brief but intense collaborative information technology endeavor.

“There are some opportunities out there, but we wanted to make sure the opportunities were there for the younger kids, too – particularly girls,” explained Maniscalco, a sophomore at St. Joseph’s Academy.

Zhang, a junior at Marquette High, added, “It’s important for boys to learn to code, too, but it’s harder for girls to feel comfortable in a STEM classroom. There are statistics that show that girls are discouraged from pursuing STEM careers as they get older.”

Recently, the duo started an after-school club at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Manchester. Girls in third through fifth grade are eligible to participate. While West Newsmagazine was visiting, they worked on javascript and creating GIFs.

Fifth-grader Edie is an eager participant, who was encouraged to join by her friend Jo Jo. “We’ve gotten to hack a website and make our own website. Mine was about baking, using pictures of designer cakes and pastries,” Edie explained.

Another fifth-grader, Addie, heard murmurings about the club and decided she also wanted to try it.

“Math is my favorite subject but this helps me learn how to do cooler things on the computer and electronics. One of the projects was to take a website and change it to make it my own. It allowed me to be artsy and [gave me] something I can work on outside of class,” she said.

Helping in the after-school club is preschool teacher Kim McMonigle, who also is incorporating coding into her curriculum.

Volunteering, she said, offers practical support for Zhang and Maniscalco but, in turn, provides valuable resources to McMonigle as an educator and helps guide her approach in the classroom.

McMonigle’s preschool students are learning how to organize their thinking and overcome obstacles as well as how to manipulate and control the computer mouse by making a connection between the cursor and the mouse. After they have mastered those basic skills this spring, they will begin working on computers.

“It is my goal to introduce young children, and especially girls, to the power of programming and the impact it can have in many aspects of their lives … so that they feel as comfortable as boys going into STEM-related fields, and specifically, computer programming,” McMonigle said.

Supergirls Code’s secondary goal is to give high-school girls across the country the tools they need to host after-school clubs, summer camps and library programs.

“People are reaching out to start chapters, which is really exciting,” Maniscalco said. “We provide PowerPoint [presentations] and guides to follow.”

Zhang added, “Whether it is our ongoing club, or through a workshop, it’s really fun and rewarding to see girls participate. It’s really empowering our girls.”

* National Center for Women and Information Technology

Preschool teacher Kim McMonigle helps at the weekly coding club.

Sophie Maniscalco helping Zoe at Supergirls Code.

Kailin Zhang helping Katarina at the coding club.

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