On Monday, giggles could be heard emanating from the Oregon State University Extension office at the Event Center in Gold Beach.
The group of 12- and 13-year-olds were having fun, to be sure, but they were taking their first steps toward closing the gap in the tech world and securing a possible lucrative career in computer games, websites and related technology.
They are members of the Gold Beach chapter of “Girls Who Code,” a nationwide program that encourages girls in sixth to 12th grade to learn about the technology industry. The program is funded by grants from Walmart and Jordan Energy Project.
Members of the Gold Beach club meet from 5 to 7 p.m. every Monday.
Program Manager Kyle Stevens, of the Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board, said the Girls Who Code clubs were created after research showed there were few women pursuing careers in technology.
The clubs have since sprung up across the country, with a mission to convince teens that working with computers is cool — and profitable.
The program is free to participants and includes an introduction to the computer science curriculum couched in an engaging, easy-to-understand, friendly environment.
Girls Who Code even provides free laptops, courtesy of Workforce Investment Board.
Nationwide, there are about 10,000 girls participating in the clubs, Stevens said.
“Oregon is represented by the newly-formed Coos Bay and Newport clubs in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “There are several Portland clubs in existence and Gold Beach is the latest.”
Stevens is working locally with Brianna Wallace of the OSU Extension Office. Wallace has extensive experience working with teen girls through the sports programs at Gold Beach High School, where she coaches softball. Stevens is glad to have Wallace on board because the need to connect with these girls is so important to their futures.
“We know that there will be around 1.4 million jobs in the computer science field by 2020. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of these positions are currently on track to be filled by women worldwide. We think we can do better than that, both as a country and here locally,” Stevens said.
He said the decline in females in computer sciences wasn’t always that way, and he points to data that shows that, as recently as 1984, women made up 37 percent of all computer science graduates.
Today that number has slipped to 18 percent. Stevens said there are nowhere near enough computer-skilled techs to fill the void in the U.S., and many good-paying jobs that start at between $58,000 to $71,500 are currently going overseas.
At the OSU office in Gold Beach, Malaika Bacon, 13, is joined by Elizabeth Bock and Aryana Starader, both 12. They are members of the club’s first class and eager to get started.
For Bacon, coding is something that runs in her family.
“My dad does some of it and he encouraged me to take a look into it,” she said.
The same holds true for Bock, who nods in agreement. “My sister does it and I decided to give it a try.”
Starader joined at the encouragement of her grandpa. “He believes in me and he thinks it’s a good thing.”
Wallace starts the class with some ice-breakers, letting the girls have fun getting to know each other. That camaraderie is important, she said, because the club will become a team that will work together on computer science projects going forward.
“Tonight, the girls will be working on a club motto and designing a club flag,” Wallace said.
Stevens is excited about more girls joining the club.
“There are so many directions these girls can go, whether it’s computer programming, writing software or encryption technology for example,” he said.
Word is already spreading in Coos Bay, where the club there went from four to 21 members in just a few weeks.
In Gold Beach, club members meet from 5 to 7 p.m. every Monday.
“It’s only two hours per week and runs through the school year. We take a break during summer,” Stevens said.
“If these girls stick with this, they will definitely know their way around the tech field and will have a decided advantage over their peers when they enter college. Their future looks bright,” Stevens said.
For more information about Girls Who Code Clubs, contact OSU Curry County Extension office at in Gold Beach 541-247-6672, or visit www.girlswhocode.com/Clubs.