A news crew travels across the region, covering the emerging civil rights protests during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the entire team falls ill with the virus, it seems impossible to tell everyone they’d encountered that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Enter a team of teenage girls, virtually connected and ready to write code. To help develop a new contact tracing app, they study the news crew’s Instagram accounts to see when and where they’d been. Now, they can use that information to reach others who had been in the same area at the same time.
This is just one of the real-life scenarios from the Summer Immersion Program, a two-week course held by Girls who Code and sponsored by Raytheon Technologies. Though it was scaled back from the usual seven-week, in-person curriculum, the point and the message remained clear: Computer science is a powerful and versatile skill.
“Computer science is very cool, but it doesn’t have to be just programming. That was one fear of the girls — they are these complete people and they’re social and they’re smart and they imagine coding as being in a basement by themselves. But large-scale software development isn’t like that at all,” said Kelly FitzGerald, one of the leaders of the contact tracing app session, who works as a product-security architect at Raytheon Technologies. “I think it’s important for them to know there’s a lot of moves they can make after getting a computer science degree.”
Girls Who Code, an international organization that works to build a pipeline of women in engineering, is on a mission to close the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2027. The organization runs GWC Clubs, or free afterschool programs that teach coding, build confidence and create camaraderie for girls in grades 3 through 12. Raytheon Technologies, which has partnered with the organization since early 2019, had pre-COVID-19 plans to sponsor the normal summer program at its offices in East Hartford and Brooklyn.
Instead, the company enabled two virtual summer programs with 40 female employees mentoring 65 girls. Each girl spent two weeks with an instructor and their class, learning coding principles, participating in special sessions such as the contract tracing app, and developing a project that addresses an issue in their community. This move to a virtual program presented some challenges, FitzGerald said, such as home distractions and less time to absorb and learn information. She also noted it was a learning experience for mentors as some, herself included, had to adjust after realizing their first sessions were too technical for the virtual and time-constrained setting.
Still, like any good coder, everyone adapted. Instead of the much larger project they would have done in the office, one of the projects was to build a website for social advocacy. One example they produced was Say My Name, a site that memorializes the Black Americans whose violent deaths led to the recent wave of protests. The site also provided resources for those personally dealing with the issue.
For FitzGerald, who started working with Girls Who Code last year by teaching a class about how to cheat at single-player video games using code hacks, the experience was more than worth the effort.
“I think it’s amazing, in general (Girls Who Code) are working really hard to find at-risk girls,” she said. “They’re removing a lot of barriers between haves and have-nots, and they’re giving these girls job skills. At the end of my last session, I got about 20 LinkedIn requests from 17-year-old girls, which is kind of funny but also cool, as they’re learning how to do this stuff. I’ve just been charmed and encouraged.”
Still, she’s looking forward to next year, when she hopes the girls can come join her in the office to get a better real-life taste of working in computer sciences as they tackle even bigger projects.
In the meantime, the company’s partnership with Girls Who Code continues to include its support of program growth in India, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada. It also recently expanded to include the College Loops program, an initiative designed to increase the retention of girls studying computer science while connecting Girls Who Code alumni to corporate sponsors like Raytheon Technologies.