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Coding class tries to break tech’s gender divide

Robert Meek’s coding class at Akron High School is a long way from Silicon Valley, but its demographics are not far off from the industry’s.

Three girls staked out their desks on one side of Meek’s classroom, while 10 boys took up the rest of the class.

Kamryn Hartranft, 17, a senior at Akron, wasn’t surprised only a few girls had enrolled in coding.

“There were more girls than I expected,” she said. “You see more boys in the technical fields. When you join this, you’re associated with being a nerd.”

Between 2013 and 2014, female participation in AP computer science tests increased by more than one-third, according to Education Week. But girls still make up only a small number of those test-takers, with 20 percent participation nationwide and just 18.4 percent in New York State.

“There is nothing to stop a girl from signing up for a coding class,” Meek said. “The barriers are social.”

When Meek took his first high school computer science course in the 1980s, he said the field was just beginning to gain its geeky reputation. But with tech wizards such as Mark Zuckerberg emerging as billionaire moguls, the pendulum may be swinging the other way.

In 2013, when Meek advertised an after-school coding program, more than 100 students signed up. At the end of the program, 97 percent of those surveyed agreed they needed the coding experience.

“I’ve had students go to the Rochester Institute of Technology and they’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “The students are more comfortable now because they’ve had more exposure (to coding).”

The class uses tutorials from Hour of Code, a free online introduction to computer science, and Snap, a Berkeley-designed drag and drop program.

Unlike language-centric programs such as Javascript or Python, which write the applications, Snap uses a simple building block method for coding. Meek admits the program is aimed at a middle school level, but said it provides a step toward more advanced coding. He also feels coding languages such as HTML will fade away to make room for a building block system.

Kamryn, who hopes to study computer science and information technology in college, even described the coding class as “cool.”

“I just thought it was really fascinating how you could make things happen,” she said.

Behind her, senior Carly Staebell, 17, completed a numbers game on Snap. Carly doesn’t plan on working in computers, but said the class has made her more comfortable with the field.

“I like how logical it is,” she said. “It’s not magic, it’s just really straightforward.”

Girls agreed coding aptitude in the class doesn’t break down along gender lines. Still, boys’ preference for video games may give them an edge over girls, said senior Maddy Caya, 18.

In Akron, students and teachers don’t seem fazed by the gender gap in the tech industry. Christine O’Malley, who teaches eighth-grade technology and an adaptive tech class, argued that both genders can excel in the field.

“Prior to me, there was a female tech teacher,” she said. “I think we’re a positive role model for females.”