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Code for success: Northern Minnesota Girls Who Code Club is the only chapter in Minnesota

​Lisa Thunder, a sixth-grader who attends Red Lake Middle School, works on Scratch, an online computer-programming program, during a weekly meeting of the Northern Minnesota Girls Who Code Club. The cub, founded earlier this year, is the only Girls Who Code chapter in Minnesota and has about 50 members. Pictured at right is Shelby Bjerke, a freshman at Bemidji High School. ​Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- Summer Crow was interested the moment she first heard of an emerging computer-programming club for girls.

"I was intrigued instantly," said the seventh-grader, who attends Schoolcraft Learning Community.

She wasn't alone. When Jennifer Theisen, a programmer/analyst at Bemidji State University, founded the northern Minnesota chapter of Girls Who Code earlier this year, she initially hoped that maybe 10 girls would be interested in joining. She now maintains a roster of around 50 girls in sixth through 12th grade.

"They're soaking it up like a sponge," Theisen said. "I can show them just a handful of things and then tell them to go ahead and do it on their own. ... They'll take what I've shown them and they'll take it to the next step, which is so awesome to see."

Girls Who Code is a national program dedicated to strengthening girls' skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, with the long-term goal of reaching gender parity in computing fields.

Theisen happened to read a small advertisement for Girls Who Code while perusing an industry email.

"I did a little bit more looking into what it was -- because I'm a girl and I code -- and ... I know what a kind of tough time I've had getting into the field so I thought, 'Hmm, if I could help someone else out that would be great, because there's not that many of us around,'" she said.

Theisen, who started programming at 3 years old under the tutelage of her programmer father, has been working in the industry for 17 years and will soon mark her first anniversary at BSU. As she applied to form the Northern Minnesota Girls Who Code Club, she received the support and encouragement from her superiors at BSU. The club was approved in June and is the first and only chapter of Girls Who Code in Minnesota.

As soon as classes began this fall, Theisen visited and reach out to schools throughout the region. Students who attend schools in or very near Bemidji provide their own transportation to the weekly meetings at BSU but, due to the large amount of interest from girls who attend schools further north, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa provides busing to get students from Red Lake and Ponemah to Bemidji every Tuesday.

"I've always been interested in computers and I just thought it would be cool to go to a club and learn about coding," said Lisa Thunder, a sixth-grader at Red Lake Middle School.

Of her club members, Theisen said there probably are only about seven or eight girls who have done some degree of computer programming before. Crow, the Schoolcraft student, said she previously did similar work on National Computer Programming Day.

"We got to make different games and it was so much fun that I just really wanted to do this when I found out there is a club for it," she said.

Most of the students, however, have not had previous computer-programming experience.

"I like exploring new stuff and figuring out what I like," Thunder said. "I think it's great and I'm happy I joined."

The students are working with Scratch, a free online program that allows them to create a character and choreograph its movements.

"I've enjoyed learning about how to make the cat move on the screen," Thunder said.

Theisen said club members will continue to build on the concepts they are learning and advance into creating games and apps. Next year, even as potentially new members are added, she said the current students will continue to grow their skills.

"One of the beauties of the program is the curriculum comes from Girls Who Code and it has three levels built into it," Theisen said. "So even if some of my girls next year were to be at ground zero and then all of the girls I have this year joined again, they'd be at level two, and I can still teach both levels."

So far, she has been impressed by what she has seen.

"I think some of them were coming just to find out what it was all about," she said of the students, "and they have just grabbed a hold of it and are creating some of the more unique designs."

Theisen said the club is at capacity for this year but will invite more students to join next year. Anyone interested in learning more is encouraged to visit the Northern Minnesota Girls Who Code Club page on Facebook.

"I do believe, because now technology is so much in your hands and in your hands at an earlier age than it was when I was young, that I think girls are more interested in ... building games similar to Angry Birds and Words with Friends," she said.

Why it matters

• Women today represent 12 percent of all computer science graduates. In 1984, they represented 37 percent.

• 57 percent of bachelor's degrees are earned by women, but only 12 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women.

• In a room of 25 engineers, only three will be women.

Source: GirlsWhoCode.com

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