How alumna Jessie Graham inspires young girls to code

Jessie Graham EN'14 is a former McKelvey Scholar, and currently works for Epic Systems in Madison, Wis. She was recently featured in a Chicago newspaper for her volunteer work with Girls Who Code.

Jessie Graham, a software engineer in Madison, Wis., shares her experiences in computer science with the Girls Who Code club at Fischer Middle School. (Photo: Suzanne Baker / Naperville Sun)

Eighth-grader Quincy Houghton said she knows exactly what she wants to study in college: English and computer science. Quincy's goal is to translate her learning into writing storylines for video games that she expects to create someday.

Quincy is among the 30 girls participating in the Girls Who Code club that started in January at Fischer Middle School in Aurora.

Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering fields by helping girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields. Besides clubs that teach girls to code and introduce girls to computer professionals, the organization hosts a summer immersion program in which students learn computer science fundamentals and meet with women mentors working in technology.

According to the Girls Who Code website, 74 percent of girls in middle school express interest in science, technology, engineering and math, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4 percent of high school girls select computer science. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections for 2014 to 2024 estimate 1.2 millions job openings will be available in computing occupations due to growth and replacement needs.

The concern by groups like Girls Who Code is that young women could be missing out because they're not considering the field, and one of the biggest obstacles is the perception.

Quincy and fellow eighth-graders in the club said their female peers often see people who work in computer science as "old guys" (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) and "creepy stalkers" (from movies and television shows).

Even when girls break the mold and show interest in computers, they get stereotyped as loners or underestimated for their abilities because boys often think they are better at computers than girls, Fischer eighth-grader Rianna DeMyers said.

Jane McCormick, instructional technology teacher who started the Girls Who Code club at the District 204 school, sees the impact in the classroom. "We have a coding class now in eighth grade that all can attend. Very few girls sign up for it," she said.

"The real question is how do we keep them interested so they continue on in high school and college. That is what we really need to be addressing; that is a very tough question to answer. We need to keep working on keeping our kids interested."

Girls Who Code clubs in Naperville and Aurora are helping shift that perspective.

On a recent Wednesday, Fischer Middle School's club spoke via Skype to Jessie Graham, a software engineer at Epic Systems in Madison, Wis. She earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from Washington University in St. Louis, where she also minored in music. Her hobbies range from practicing the clarinet, piano and guitar to riding motorcycles to playing first-person video games.

"I am a huge 'Legends of Zelda' fan," Graham said, a confession that thrilled the younger girls and drew them even more into the long-distance conversation.

McCormick said she's passionate about exposing as many girls to coding as she can.

"There is a super-bright future for whoever wants to jump on the bandwagon and go," she said.

Fischer is one of the few middle schools in the United States to offer Girls Who Code.

"We are doing the same stuff as the high school is doing," McCormick said.

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