Elementary School Program Introduces Girls to Coding

Technology integration specialist Kris Haagenson shows girls the path to computer science careers.
Students Madison Townshend and Lillian James learning about coding at Zachary Elementary School

The share of women in the United States computing industry is less than 25 percent and shrinking. But Plymouth resident Kris Haagenson, a technology integration specialist for Robbinsdale Area Schools, is doing her part to counteract that trend.

Last year, Haagenson attended a Code.org training focused on getting girls into computer science. The training got her excited about introducing girls to coding — but “time is your enemy” in schools, Haagenson says. So she had a brainstorm: use recess time.

Haagenson figured many kids would jump at the chance to stay inside for a few recesses during cold winter weather. She was right, and a new program for fifth-grade girls was created for students at eight elementary schools, including Zachary Lane Elementary, with a total of about 200 participants.

The program is a weeklong introduction to various coding sites and languages, and includes videos about girls in coding and career choices. It also emphasizes that men currently dominate the field — Haagenson is looking to build awareness in girls about computer science as a career path available to them.

The Hour of Code, a global movement aimed at introducing kids to computer science and programming, is often the students’ first taste of coding, and Haagenson “just took it one step further.” She primarily used Scratch and Code.org, the latter of which focuses on concepts that are a part of computer science; students were also exposed to CoffeeScript and JavaScript.

The first step was getting students to realize that computers don’t just magically do what they do — they require a human to program them. Haaganson wanted to help students understand what the whole coding process involved. “It’s a lot of puzzle-solving and challenging yourself to try it, and if it doesn’t work, you try it again,” she says.

Haagenson gave the girls projects with a graduated leveling so they could start out simple and work toward more complexity. The schools’ learning management system, Schoology, lets the girls continue projects after the program ends, and Haagenson estimates that half the girls will continue doing coding projects on their own after the introductory week.

Ella Temple and Megan Dailey were fifth-graders at Zachary Lane last year and participated in the class. Temple says the most fun was learning something new with her friends and learning about what her dad does for a career.

“I had fun learning how to code,” Megan says. “Mrs. Haagenson started us out with easy activities and sites and then it got harder and harder the more I got better at it. I know there’s a lot more to learn and would definitely do it again. Mrs. Haagenson made it fun, and I felt like I was learning something that I could use when I’m older.”

“One of the things I thought was cool was that you might think of coding as a solitary thing, but it turned out to be really collaborative,” Haageson says. When the girls got stuck on a challenge, they’d help each other. Some would even get together after school and work on coding.

The weeklong class packed a lot in: Girls learned how collaboration is helpful, had the fun of discovering something new and came away with an understanding of how computers talk. The big message to girls was that computer science is something they could do for a career if they were interested.

“I encourage all kids to be curious and find out how things work and why they work," Haagenson says.