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Coding club for girls looks for more members and facilitators

Gainesville's chapter of Girls Who Code meets every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. (Photo courtesy of Girls Who Code)
Gainesville's chapter of Girls Who Code meets every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. (Photo courtesy of Girls Who Code)

As the world becomes more focused on technology-based careers, one student organization is committed to educating young minds by coding Tetris games.

Girls Who Code is an international nonprofit organization that was founded by Reshma Saujani in 2012 with the goal of increasing the number of women in the field of computer science. While it started as an organization for the benefit of women, it also aims to include nonbinary individuals.

So far, the organization has achieved around 14 billion engagements through online resources, campaigns, books and advocacy work, according to the website.

The organization spreads its message through college and career programs, summer programs and school-based clubs. According to the international Girls Who Code website, about 470,000 students have participated in coding clubs in the United States, India, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Chris Palles, a primary facilitator and college student, runs a Girls Who Code club based in Gainesville. The club is neither sponsored by the University of Florida nor the university's student government. It runs entirely on donations from friends, family and out-of-pocket funds.

“I just love seeing how happy they get,” Palles said. “That satisfaction that someone has in their face when something clicks and they figure it out, especially when there are problems in the code, is so phenomenal to see how much they progress. It makes my heart warm.”

The club meets every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The hour-long meeting is run by Palles and two other facilitators who were members before graduating college. Each facilitator is assigned to a child to maximize one-on-one learning.  

The club’s curriculum is structured using two coding websites, Scratch and Trinket. Scratch is designed as a basic coding platform that teaches the basics of coding language to young users. Scratch acts more like a coding game in which users can build their own game of Tetris. Trinket is for more advanced coders who understand how to perform basic coding functions. In Trinket, users can build more complex coding systems.

In the club’s early years before the COVID-19 pandemic, members would host donation drives among family and friends. These drives were the main source of funding for the local chapter.

“We used to be in the Alachua Public Library for a while before COVID-19. After moving online, a few girls had trouble accessing computers,” facilitator Gabriela Buraglia said. “So it was Chris’ idea. The idea was to hold a drive for the kids who needed computers, which I think made a big difference. At the very start of the club, we did have some funding through the parent organization, but had to find other ways to fund the club.”

Buraglia said that there were some challenges that came with shifting to an online setting.

“Before COVID-19, we could interact with a group of girls,” Buraglia said. “But moving virtually, even though it was a great decision to keep the club running, the most challenging part was changing the teaching style to have a dedicated student for each facilitator.”

Buraglia also said she thinks the club is important for the future of girls working in STEM-related careers.

“I just love seeing the ah-ha moment from girls. I think it’s really awesome that they’re coming from such a young age,” Buraglia said. “I definitely think it’s going to be more needed in the world because of the way technology is moving so quickly. But it’s still amazing to me.”

Palles said she plans on graduating at the end of the spring semester and was in search of a younger college student to take her place. Palles chose Shreya Shenoy, a college freshman, to fill her shoes.

“She handles it so well, and I can see she feels the same way I do. She really cares for these girls, really sees their potential and wants to help them reach it. And she definitely has the ability to do so,” Palles said. “To encourage them, to teach them and she’s really passionate about trying to expand the club, which I love. For those reasons, I thought she would be a great candidate to take over after me.”

Shenoy said she shares the same enthusiasm for the club and the girls involved.

“I was inspired during my first semester, just seeing how the club worked. I started with this club in my first semester of freshman year. I really enjoyed just volunteering and seeing the girls every week,” Shenoy said. “So, when Chris told me about how she was graduating and wanted to pass on the leadership, I was really excited to become more involved and see more of the leadership aspects of the club.”

Shenoy said she plans on addressing some of the club's current challenges, including membership and facilitator participation.

“One goal I have is to try to expand the club. Our current challenges have to be finding new facilitators that are current undergraduate students,” Shenoy said. “Some of our facilitators are either graduating or currently working.”

While the club has seen some interest in recent months, Shenoy said she is actively working to spread awareness about the importance of the Girls Who Code message.

“I think that these skills are really relevant just with how widespread technology is and how fast the field of computer science is growing,” Shenoy said. “So, I think it’s definitely important to have these skills.”

The local chapter of the Girls Who Code club is looking for facilitators and young members. Learning to code Tetris games could be a child's first step in bridging the gender gap in the computer science and STEM community.

Victoria is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.