New Coding Club Hacks an Upper School Need

NCS has added quite a few technology elements to its curriculum over the past few years: a Hour of Code program, Lego League Robotics, and classes in Digital Filmmaking, Multivariable Calculus, and Differential Equations.
But two seniors decided last summer that the Upper School still needed … something more.
"Whenever we have math days and it's a day where we're learning how to code, people get excited and it's really cool," said India Bhalla-Ladd '17. "But the [coordinate] computer science classes—Introduction to Programming Languages and AP Computer Science—have very few girls. It was a very strange discrepancy, and we wanted to figure out why that was and where were the girls."
After looking into it, Bhalla-Ladd and Julia Stavreva '17 determined that, while several of their Upper School classmates wanted to learn more about coding, they were unwilling to commit to a year-long class.
"It's a hard sacrifice for people to make if they don't exactly know what they're getting into," Bhalla-Ladd said.
Better, Stavreva said, would be giving girls the chance to "be very engaged with coding [without having] to center your school life around it."
The answer, the two seniors decided, was to create a club.
That's a relatively easy thing to do at NCS: To start a club, all you need is a good idea, a faculty member willing to serve as the sponsor, and a club name.
The natural choice for a sponsor was Lana Conte, an Upper School math teacher who has been the department's lead on integrating computer science into the math curriculum. She agreed, and Frances O'Connor, the technology integration specialist, later joined as a co-sponsor.
The club name was nearly as easy. In recent summers, both Stavreva and Bhalla-Ladd had participated in a seven-week summer immersion program run by the nonprofit Girls Who Code. That organization also was familiar with NCS, having provided the curriculum for last year's after-school enrichment program in coding, which Ms. Conte helped lead. So an association was no problem to arrange.
A little paperwork later, the Girls Who Code Club was born, making NCS one of a handful of independent schools in the region—and one of the few girls' schools (along with Excel Academy and Elizabeth Seton High School)—to affiliate with GWC.
In a sign of the latent interest, the new club quickly drew sign-ups from dozens of students. Eventually, a core group of 15 or so students emerged. Over a couple hours a week, they dive into a variety of projects, examining angles such as web design as well as app coding. The point, the seniors said, is showing that a knowledge of coding can apply to one's life in a lot of ways.
"It's so broad to just say, 'I'm a coder,' " Stavreva said. "It could mean so many different things. There are so many different ways you could take it, so with this club you get to try those different ways out."
In November, several club members, including both Bhalla-Ladd and Stavreva, attended the Technica "hackathon." That event at the University of Maryland brought the NCS students together with professional programmers, software developers, and college students to code apps, hardware, and websites.
The experience inspired the club to bring a hackathon to NCS, in the hopes of showing students here that coding is already within their reach. In that April 15 event—taking place six months to the day after Technica—students will lead seminars that offer hands-on learning in a fun, approachable way.
"You don't need to be able to code to come," Stavreva said. "Really, it's all about learning."
Participants in grades 6 through 12 can play and design games in virtual reality, learn how to direct robots, build apps and websites, and become familiar with the mathematical modeling environment MATLAB.
Staging such an event is a big undertaking for any club, much less for one in its first year. But Bhalla-Ladd and Stavreva say they're optimistic that Girls Who Code has tapped into a deep channel of interest and that it will be a club option at NCS long after they've gone on to college.
"I know there's a big base of interest in Middle School, and that makes me very happy," Bhalla-Ladd said, nodding to the Alpha Eagles robotics team, made up of students in grades 6-8. "We're definitely gearing it toward being a lasting club, and the fact that there's such a big excited Middle School base gives me a lot of faith that it will be."
To sign up a student for the April 15 hackathon, email Frances O'Connor with her name and grade.
    • Girls Who Code club members discuss their upcoming "hackathon," scheduled for April 15.

    • Club founders Julia Stavreva '17, left, and India Bhalla-Ladd '17.