December 13th was a brisk day in Toronto. Snow carpeted the ground and temperatures plunged to -18 Celsius. But inside Humberside Collegiate Institute, the frosty weather was far from the minds of a group of grade-nine girls about to participate in a unique experience: a Canada-wide computer coding competition for girls. Nearly 3,000 girls to be exact from 89 schools that ranged as far east as Nova Scotia to the country’s westernmost province of British Columbia.
The event was organized by Hackergal, a Toronto non-profit whose mission is to introduce young girls to coding through the experience of a hackathon. Barrick was the lead sponsor for the event. As the mining industry goes digital, Barrick will need a more diverse workforce with skills such as coding. The Hackergal sponsorship is one way the Company is working to show young people, especially women, that the mining industry offers many exciting career paths.
While women constitute the majority of university graduates in Canada, they are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) fields. In 2011, for example, women in the 25-34 age range comprised 66 percent of university graduates from non-STEM fields but just 39 percent of graduates with STEM degrees, according to Statistics Canada. The numbers drop even further for the latter half of the STEM acronym, with women accounting for just 23 percent of engineering graduates and 30 per cent of math and computer science grads.
Hackergal aims to balance those percentages by inspiring girls to take up coding through events like the Canada-wide hackathon. A hackathon is an event in which computer programmers or “coders” work together to solve a challenge. It’s a fast-paced event in which experienced coders compete to develop the best solution to the challenge. Hackergal has adapted the concept to young girls, aged 11-14, with little or no coding experience. On December 13th, the girls, working in the Python coding language, spent a full school day developing a holiday-themed game or story.
Lisa Prinn, a computer science teacher at Humberside, says girls are usually in the minority in computer science classes, and that can be intimidating. As a result, most girls eschew these classes and the cycle perpetuates. Yet coding is the future, a 21st century skill that young people — both boys and girls — will need as the world goes increasingly digital. That’s why Humberside was drawn to Hackergal, Prinn says.
After Prinn and Matropoulis greeted the girls, they split into teams, brainstormed ideas for their projects, and then they began to code. Students Ashley Balbaa and Renata Matic developed a game in which players help Santa Claus recover a batch of lost presents. Both were new to coding, but clearly relished the experience.
As Balbaa and Matic discovered the intricacies of coding, 39 grade-six girls were sharing a similar experience at nearby Humewood Community School.
Humewood principal Julie Whitfield says she was struck by the enthusiasm with which the girls embraced coding. In the week before the event, she says teachers held lunch-time drop-in sessions to build the girls’ coding skills. No one missed a session.
The fact that the hackathon was an all-girls event helped spur interest and boost the girls’ confidence, adds Humewood teacher Christopher Lawley.
Roberston-Westenberg and Eklove say the hackathon helped the girls shed misconceptions about coding. While it can be challenging, it’s not nearly as hard as they thought. Both say they plan to continue coding and see no reason why gender should be a barrier to entry. Coding, after all, is fun and something anyone can do — both boys and girls.
Barrick plans to continue working with Hackergal supporting even larger hackathons as well as other activities that help young girls develop a proficiency in and a passion for coding.