FARGO - A group will assemble next week at North Dakota State University to code drone flight patterns and develop virtual reality games. The event isn't a workshop for college students or professional coders and engineers.
Instead, the 50-plus participants will be young girls ages 10 to 18 participating in uCodeGirl, a summer tech camp designed to encourage young girls to pursue careers in computer science and technology.
Founder Betty Gronneberg, a native of Ethiopia who earned a master's degree in software engineering at NDSU, established the uCodeGirl nonprofit in 2016 after noticing a lack of women in her field. She started researching why and found that young girls often lost interest in computer science in middle school. One reason was that they often didn't have female role models or mentors working in tech.
She set out to change that by organizing two-day tech camps at area middle schools, and last year she organized the first Crack the Code camp at NDSU for girls ages 12 to 17. It didn't end there. Gronneberg also paired attendees and other young girls with women working at tech companies, entrepreneurs and academics for a yearlong mentorship program.
Thanks to her efforts and those of similar nonprofits and increased STEM programs in schools, more girls are pursuing degrees in computer science today.
In 2016, just 12,642 female students took an Advanced Placement computer science exam, according to data obtained from the AP College Board. That number more than doubled in 2017 when 29,708 female students took an exam.
But there is still a long way to go: Young women represented just 27 percent of the 111,262 students who took an AP computer science exam last year.
Taking it back
Gronneberg said this year's camp, slated for June 18-22, is designed to give girls hands-on projects that will build their confidence, enhance their skills and tap into their curiosity.
One such activity will be coding flight patterns for drones. Minnesota State University Moorhead students and camp instructors Maddie Stephenson and Michelle Pienaar explained that girls will use programming languages like Blockly and Python to map flight plans for their drone.
"You have to plan the whole flight out first and then send a code to the drone," Pienaar said, while Stephenson demonstrated a drone flying up, forward, down and back in a cube formation to land where it started.
The girls will also use a program called Unity to create a virtual reality game that can be uploaded to a smartphone, where they can explore their customized landscape.
Pienaar said computer games were what first got her interested in technology.
"My dad always was playing games with me on the computer when I was little," she said. "That's where my interest started was with games. I wanted to learn how to make games, and that got me into programming."
Stephenson wasn't always sure she wanted to pursue a degree in computer science. She said she took a couple of programming classes in high school, but she was the only girl. For that reason, she wasn't sure computer science was for her.
That changed when she enrolled in college and got a grant for programming from the Women's Foundation.
"I just dove right in and I love it. I'm so happy that I made that decision. I think women should be in technology. It used to be a women's field, and we need to take it back," she said.
Gronneberg said she is excited for next week's program, which is now full.
"It's encouraging for us that there is interest, contrary to popular opinion that girls are not interested (in tech)," she said. "We need to keep working to sustain that so we can produce more problem-solvers and innovators in North Dakota and beyond."
To learn more about uCodeGirl, visit www.ucodegirl.org.