Coding with My Girls breaks down cyber barriers

Anannya Susendra (second from left) and her sister, Aksara (second from right), build a website at the Coding with My Girls hackathon Saturday at Grand Canyon University’s Cyber Center of Excellence.

Story and photos by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

No ands, ifs or buts about it. Seventh grader Iza Hernandez wants to be a mechanical engineer.

“It’s really fun – math is really fun and easy,” said Hernandez, though on Saturday, she shelved her mechanical engineering inclinations to be one of the girls plucky enough to challenge themselves at the Coding with My Girls hackathon in Grand Canyon University’s Technology Building.

Hernandez gets a kick out of designing, developing, building and testing things.

“I like making the physical stuff better (than the world of cyberspace),” said Iza, who has her own 3D printer at home and brought one of her 3D-printed figures with her to the event.

Seventh grader Iza Hernandez (left) gets coding help from GCU software development student Melanie Spence.

But she wanted to learn new coding skills so she joined the hackathon, organized by the Technology Club’s Girls Who Code Committee. The club partnered with the University’s Society of Women Engineers and K12 Educational Development to bring the event to campus, with support from Associate Dean of Computer Sciences and Technology Dr. Pam Rowland.

During the coding challenge — to build a website for a fictional company in two hours using the HTML and CSS programming languages — Iza said of her team, confidently, “We’re going to win! We’re the threatening team!”

The no-experience-needed Coding with My Girls hackathon was the second of the year. The first one in the fall was for college students, and the spring edition was for middle and high schoolers.

The Coding with My Girls series came about in the middle of COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, the committee assisted with coding classes at local high schools but couldn’t do that during coronavirus. So the hackathons were created to re-introduce the committee to the community and to continue its outreach efforts.

It is dedicated to reaching out to young women and changing the technology landscape.

Niya Patterson, one of the moderators at the Women in STEM panel earlier this month, said introducing girls to STEM fields at a young age is key to changing the industry landscape. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Niya Patterson, committee lead, said, “There’s definitely women lacking the field.”

At the recent Women in Cybersecurity conference in Cleveland, Patterson said she learned that only about 25% of the cyber workforce is women, a statistic echoed across a spectrum of STEM fields.

“Definitely, this event is to advocate for women coming into STEM and then trying to eliminate that stigma girls may have that they’re not good enough to get into a technical position.

“That’s what this is all about.”

Patterson added that introducing girls to technology fields at a young age is key to changing the industry landscape.

“It creates a firm foundation within their head and their mentality that they CAN do this,” Patterson said.

SWE secretary and Technology Club member Trang Pham said it’s important at these events to quell those doubts and remove those obstacles.

“We’re welcoming them to the world of technology,” Pham said as the participants paired with GCU technology student mentors in the design of their websites.

Patterson said another reason for Coding with My Girls is to help GCU students develop their mentorship skills.

The purpose of the event was also to develop the mentoring skills of GCU’s students.

One of those mentors, GCU software development freshman Savannah Krey, attended the Coding with My Girls event for college students in the fall. She also was one of the event panelists on Saturday, along with GCU students Melanie Spence and Ana Sanchez, who spoke about their experiences as technology students.

“I expressed an interest in helping with this one (Coding with My Girls event) because I really liked it last semester,” said Krey.

Sanchez, a senior software development major and Technology Club member, told students, “You’re going to do ‘L-I,’ which is ‘list items,’ so do that,” as she walked from student to student, checking on their progress.

She seemed to have a knack for teaching and mentoring.

“I actually was going to school to be a teacher before I changed to this major,” said Sanchez.

What she loved about the hackathon was the chance to be a role model to young girls.

“When I was younger, it was hard, especially for this, software development. I didn’t really have a mentor growing up, especially a woman. I kind of want to be here for them because I would have liked to have someone there for me, as well."

Sanchez added, “I think it’s really cool to see someone for the first time build something and see it on the page.”

Not only did hackathon participants turn to Krey and Sanchez. They also had male mentors, such as Adam Harris, a senior computer science major.

Senior software development student Ana Sanchez helped middle and high schoolers at the event with coding questions.

“It seemed like a good opportunity for me to inspire others to code,” he said, as much as it was a good opportunity for him to reinforce his own coding knowledge. “If you know how to teach it, you know how to do it.”

Patterson added, “I’m so glad we have guys willing to mentor these girls. It’s all about them (the girls) at the end of the day, but them knowing their support comes from any kind of person (male or female) is important, too.”

Mom Anuvarsha Susendra runs her own Girls Who Code program for middle schoolers and thought GCU’s hackathon would be a good opportunity for her daughters, Anannya and Aksara.

“It’s better to just get your hands dirty at a very young age,” she said of introducing them to technology.

The girls worked with the HTML and CSS computer programming languages.

GCU alum Cynthia Hernandez, Iza’s mom, said what’s important to her is helping her daughter discover who she will be: “It’s just exposing her to new things that hopefully inspire her in finding what she likes.”

Tahlia Mak, a student at Paradise Valley High School, heard about the Coding with My Girls event from one of her teachers.

“This is my first hackathon,” she said with a smile, sharing how she doesn’t know yet if she wants to go into the tech field. But computer science? It’s an option.

And that’s what the Girls Who Code Committee likes to hear.


Related content:

GCU Today: SWE, Tech Club bring girls-only coding event to GCU

GCU Today: Confidence is key, say women STEM leaders

GCU Today: STEM savvy launched at MESA Regional Design Day


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