The coding club began in Winter 2015 at the bilingual Pacheco Elementary school in San Luis Obispo. The coding club went from an after-school program to a block of their Fall 2016 curriculum. | Photo courtesy of Code Club SLO

At the Apple World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Vanessa Salas stood in a long line.

Looking down the string of people, she noticed she was one of very few women in line.

“I enjoyed the whole experience at Apple, but it was intimidating because in this long line it was me and 300 men and then some other women,” Vanessa Salas, one of the founders of Code Club SLO, said. “It was interesting to see the gender gap in computer science.”

After attending the conference, Salas consulted with Cal Poly journalism lecturers Kim Bisheff and Malia Waddell, to find ways to close this divide.

“We put our three heads together and said, ‘The way we can make change for their generation when they enter the work force is make coding an activity where everyone belongs,’” Bisheff said.

The club began in Winter 2015 at the bilingual Pacheco Elementary school in San Luis Obispo. The coding club went from an after-school program to a block of their Fall 2016 curriculum.

“We started with six kids at my house and now we have 75 students total,” Salas said. “It’s great to see the program grow,” Salas said.

So far, 156 students have received the certificate of completion awarded at the end of the program. One of the requirements of the program is that at least 50 percent of students enrolled must be female.

“We want both boys and girls to be coding side by side,” Salas said.

With a need for instructors to teach the students, the three-mom team reached out to engineering clubs at Cal Poly, Women Involved in Software and Hardware (WISH) and Society of Hispanic Engineers (SHPE).

“We literally couldn’t do it without them,” Bisheff said.

The Cal Poly WISH student volunteers now work with second, third and fourth graders for one hour, three times per week. The best part about Cal Poly student participation is the elementary schoolers are more likely to listen to them, Bisheff said.

“Students respond better to Cal Poly students than they do with moms because Cal Poly students are cool, which is something moms can’t be,” Bisheff said.

Cal Poly WISH teaches elementary schoolers the logic behind coding, specifically algorithmic thinking.

In coding, something as simple as forgetting a period or slash could be vital to the functioning of a website. Additionally, any typos could cause a website page to be unresponsive. For this reason, algorithmic thinking is required for the coding process.

Another crucial process students are taught is debugging.

“It’s like the game of telephone,” Bisheff said.

Students correct a sequence of code and revise each other’s work, fixing mistakes along the way. The first team to finish the sequence without errors is the winner of the exercise.

By using real-life applications, students test the waters of coding at a young age. It’s this early exposure the three moms hope will change perspectives of students when considering majors in college down the road.

“If we start with kids in elementary school, they start with the idea that, yes, it’s ok for women to code, it’s not just a man’s thing,” Salas said.

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