It's a surprising statistic: the gender gap in computing careers is getting worse, not better.
This according to nonprofit Girls Who Code, a national organization seeking to reverse that trend and change the image of what programmers look like and do. When Cindy Moore learned about the movement on an airplane while watching a TED Talk, she was intrigued by founder Reshma Saujani's presentation on fostering bravery in girls. Bringing it to Brainerd was the next natural step for Moore, executive director of teen center TheShop, Brainerd/Baxter's Youth Defined Space.
"It's all about teaching girls how to be brave," Moore said, "... teaching them to close gender gaps, to make them more equitable."
The second semester of the program at TheShop is drawing to a close, and eight area girls are busy putting the finishing touches on their final project-an app addressing anxiety called "I'm Freaking Out." An impending public presentation on the app is the culmination of weeks of curriculum focused on coding, but also boosting confidence, improving time management, working as a team and polishing communication skills.
"I decided to be in Girls Who Code because one, Brainerd is not very open to women in technology, and the whole world really isn't," said Anna Pflepsen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Brainerd High School. "When I got into it, I found out (about) what a great website and foundation that created it, and how it brings women together-not just about technology but about building confidence and work skills and how to have a better work ethic."
Settling on an app addressing anxiety as their final "impact" project seemed a natural fit for the girls, who said as high schoolers, they know the feeling firsthand.
"I know that that's been a background for a lot of us," said fellow BHS sophomore Isabel Bundy, 16. "So I think we just created this app to try and help those in our community and high school students at different schools with coping, and learning healthy ways to deal with it, learning that they're not alone and a lot of other high school students experience it, too."
Using coding program Scratch, the group pulled together ideas into three main concepts: "Panic," a collection of crisis resources and coping techniques for those in immediate need of reducing anxiety; "Relax," gathering methods of distraction and calming, such as photos of baby animals and meditation tips; and "Information," a place to learn about causes and symptoms of anxiety.
In developing the app, the girls found themselves becoming more educated on the issue of anxiety and more apt to recognize their own symptoms and triggers-even testing out some of the coping techniques.
BHS sophomore Cassie Lyons, 16, found using the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique helped her manage anxiety. The five-step exercise encourages people to focus on what's around them-what they can see, touch, hear, smell and taste.
"It helps ground you," Lyons said.
Those techniques have come in handy, even in the push to complete the app and get it audience ready. The girls have put in extra time outside of their weekly meeting to work out kinks and finish stages of the project. This, on top of their normal schoolwork and with finals looming.
"They were constantly joking that they needed this app to help them finish making the app," said facilitator Matt Benjamin, a BHS grad who's worked at TheShop since 2013.
When the app becomes available to the public, the girls hope it will help others in ways it's helped them.
"A lot of people don't really know many grounding techniques or much about anxiety or anything, so it'll just mainly educate people and help them get better, and learn some resources," said Elena Kahler-Sinotte, a 15-year-old BHS freshman.
"I think it also helps because we have a lot of resources, and grounding and calming techniques all in one place, instead of just going on Google and finding everything on different sources," Pflepsen said. "That's a bigger hassle and more stressful."
For some of the Brainerd girls, entering the world of coding was a whole new experience-one accompanied by unexpected realizations.
"I didn't expect that it would, like, open so many doors to different things," Bundy said. "With coding, you can do so much, and just learning even the basic skills, you're able to do so much with it."
Eighteen-year-old senior Neva Gakin said she had an epiphany about her future career through the program.
"I've been playing video games and doing all kinds of stuff like that since I was probably 5, and I had no idea I needed to know any of this stuff for it," Gakin said. "So now that I know how it is and I've been working on it and kind of got a foundation for it, I'm going to go into graphic design or video game design when I'm older."
These results are exactly what the people of Girls Who Code are hoping for. According to the organization, alumni of its programs are 15 times more likely than the national average to choose a major in computer science or related fields.
Moore tweaked the curriculum to localize it more for the Brainerd teens, including inviting inspiring women in technology fields to speak to the group.
"We started doing a few more of our significant women and what their influences have been and inventions that they've created," Moore said.
This semester included a lesson on Syvantis Technologies of Baxter-a company featuring a female leader in Janelle R. Riley-and a visit from District 181 Director of Technology Sarah Porisch.
Moore hopes to expand those local tie-ins for next year's program, and to keep engaging girls in building both marketable skills and bravery. Those with questions may contact Moore at 218-454-0009. Fall semester 2019 openings for Girls Who Code are now open.
Coping with anxiety with 5-4-3-2-1
Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Once you find your breath, go through the following steps to help ground yourself:
• 5: Acknowledge five things you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, anything in your surroundings.
• 4: Acknowledge four things you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow or the ground under your feet.
• 3: Acknowledge three things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts. Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.
• 2: Acknowledge two things you can smell. Maybe you are in your office and smell pencil, or maybe you are in your bedroom and smell a pillow. If you need to take a brief walk to find a scent you could smell soap in your bathroom, or nature outside.
• 1: Acknowledge one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like-gum, coffee or the sandwich from lunch?
Source: Behavioral Health Partners Blog, University of Rochester Medical Center.
If you go
• What: Girls Who Code to present their final project, the "I'm Freaking Out" app addressing anxiety.
• Who: Girls Who Code includes Isabel Bundy, Neva Gakin, Cassie Lyons, Elena Kahler-Sinotte, Kaisa Keller-Heikkila, Anna Pflepsen, E.J. Ross and Maybelle Tatro.
• When: 4:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 21.
• Where: TheShop, 723 Washington St., Brainerd.