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Charleston YWCA doubles after-school coding clubs to empower young women of color

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Y Girls Code in computer Lab

Students meet in a computer lab for an after-school session of Y Girls Code. YWCA Greater Charleston/Provided

The tech industry is booming, and jobs in computer science are in high demand. But women, especially those of color, are often severely underrepresented in these fields. 

In an attempt to diversify America's future tech workforce, the YWCA of Greater Charleston has recently expanded its all-girls after-school coding clubs.

Y Girls Code clubs are designed to empower young women of color ​by preparing them for high-paying careers in technology.

They meet once or twice a week and are free for students to attend. Students learn key coding concepts and problem-solving strategies, said YWCA Executive Director LaVanda Brown. They also provide an opportunity for students to meet other women interested in technology via guest speakers and field trips, Brown said. 

"Goal No. 1 is to create a pipeline for future engineers and computer science folks, particularly women of color, because statistics show that we're still very low on the percentage of those involved in those careers," Brown said. 

The YWCA began its latest season of Y Girls Code this year by adding five new coding clubs, bringing its total number of the after-school programs up to 10. The new clubs are part of a long-term plan at YWCA Greater Charleston to expand Y Girls Code to include older, high school students, Brown said.

The first Y Girls Code club was launched in November 2016 at Sanders-Clyde Elementary, a majority-black, Title 1 school on Charleston's East Side neighborhood. 

Most recently, the YWCA partnered with a handful of libraries to offer new coding clubs for these students, "so that girls who began attending a club in middle school could continue through their high school careers," Brown said.

The clubs are hosted at a variety of schools, libraries and community centers across Charleston County and serve third- through 12th-grade students.

"We see a lot of times in middle school ages the girls in math and sciences, they tend to start shying away from being seen and being heard. But we find the young ladies in this club start really opening up and feeling more confident," Brown said. 

Shelia Grier, the program officer for Charleston Progressive Academy's Kaleidoscope after-school program, said she's seen this firsthand. 

"So often, you know they're introduced to one or two different career fields, and that's what they know, so broadening that knowledge base for them is huge," she said. 

Jobs in computer engineering and coding are some of the fastest-growing careers, but research shows that women are less likely to enter these fields compared with their male counterparts.

Computing jobs are also among some of the highest paying, with median salaries that are often more than twice the median wage for all other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Beyond encouraging young women to consider careers in science or engineering, the clubs are also designed to challenge girls to think about how technology could solve problems or issues in their community, Brown said.

Sanders-Clyde students used what they learned in the club to design an app that could show survivors of domestic violence where to find help.

The app never launched, Brown said, but students worked on what the app might look like and started writing the code to make it work.

The Y Girls Code program costs about $45,000 annually to run, Brown said. The funds cover supplemental materials, the club coordinator, field trips and speakers. 

Y Girls Code previously operated under the name “Girls Who Code,” referencing the national nonprofit of the same title. The clubs still use the Girls Who Code curriculum, Brown said, but the groups have since expanded to include other supplemental lessons, such as ones provided by Google CS First. Brown hopes the organization will eventually be able to offer coding summer camps for young girls. 

Clubs are offered at Baxter-Patrick James Island Library, Charleston Progressive Academy, Dorchester Road Regional Library, Felix Pinckney Community Center, Johns Island Library, Kids on Point and Memminger Elementary. 

Girls can sign up for the club at their school or YWCA Greater Charleston to participate. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

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