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Black Girls Code Founder Kimberly Bryant on Inspiring Students to Pursue STEM

January 20, 2014

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Black Girls Code Founder Kimberly Bryant

Kimberly Bryant

As part of’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Series, we recently spoke with Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, an organization whose mission is “to increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.” Ms. Bryant earned a degree in electrical engineering, with a minor in computer science, at Vanderbilt University, and held a variety of roles in technology companies before founding Black Girls Code in 2011. Before we talk about your organization, Black Girls Code, what inspired your passion for coding and engineering?

Black Girls Code classroom

Black Girls Code classroom

Kimberly Bryant: “I consider myself an unconventional techie from the standpoint that I did not get involved or interested in computers and technology at a young age like many technologists. I was more into books and reading, and thought I’d go to school to become a lawyer. But because I was good in math and science in middle and high school, my guidance counselors recommended I pursue engineering in college. In college, I ended up majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in computer science because these two areas interested me.

“The experience with my daughter as a mom is totally different from my experience, my daughter has a natural affinity for technology, which has led me to find ways to channel her interests in a productive way. People can come to technology careers across many different paths.” What are some of the most common misperceptions about engineering and coding, from your experience working with kids through Black Girls Code?

Bryant: “A common external misperception is that girls don’t like technology, gaming, robotics and things of that nature; this perception isn’t from the girls themselves, but from others. This stereotype is reinforced on the web and in personal interactions, and is totally false.

“Girls don’t realize how accessible learning C, Java and other programming languages can be, that they already have many of the building blocks required to learn how to program or work in robotics. They have the math background, the curiosity and interest in technology, to go from being a game player to being a game creator. That’s a part of what we’re doing in our classes, showing girls how to step through that door, and use the creativity and problem-solving that they have as kids and as consumers of technology to understand what is happening inside a computer.” What have you learned about teaching kids to code as you’ve evolved Black Girls Code?

Black Girls Code Classroom 2

Black Girls Code students

Bryant: “One of the key learnings is that project-based learning is tremendously valuable in getting kids engaged and inquisitive in the classroom. We lecture in small chunks and really make sure that our workshops are focused on the doing, the creating, the inquiry that comes from the students working on a project and asking questions of the mentors and teachers.

“We try to keep a very tight teacher to student ratio to encourage the interactive mentoring process, making sure that the lecture portion is extremely small. The key element that brings it all together is making sure the classes revolve around creating a project or product: at the end of a class on web design, the girls will have created a web page, or in a class on mobile app design, at the end of the class the kids have an app of their own, although sometimes their creativity outstrips the time we have in the classroom!

“We also encourage working as a team and collaborating, and with girls we’ve found that nine times out of ten if given the choice girls will work in a team or in a pair. That helps show our students that coding isn’t an isolated activity that you do alone in a cubicle.

“Finally, we emphasize the importance of the parents in the program. Most of our workshops have a parent component, parallel classes for parents. Sometimes we’ll teach the parents the same concepts we’re teaching their children, so that they know what is involved in the classroom to provide an extra layer of support, as advocates for technology and STEM in the home. The combination of these initiatives has helped our program soar.” What is the role of the traditional school system? Ironically in California’s public school system, one of the technology hubs for the world, there is little offered at the high school level that introduces coding to students, aside from AP Computer Science or an elective on programming, and almost nothing at the elementary or middle school level.

Bryant: “I was speaking to someone yesterday that there are lots of coding programs now in the after school realm such as Black Girls Code, Code NOW, Girls Who Code, and Tech-Girls, but we only have the kids for a very limited amount of time. And especially in our over-scheduled generation, I’m not getting as much time with my students as I’d like to in order to really engage students in the learning process.

“We have to shift some of this work of teaching kids about technology back into the school system. After school programs and mainstream school programs can work together, getting all of our kids, not just girls, to code. Some of the effort we’re seeing on the high school side is to get computer science as a science credit, not just an elective credit. Only nine or ten states have taken that step.

“We also have to look earlier in the pipeline, starting in middle school, because especially for girls and under-represented minorities if we wait until high school to offer computer science courses it is too late. We need to start much earlier, like the L.A. Unified and Massachusetts school districts that are using programs like ECS (Exploring Computer Science), that start in 9th grade, and move even earlier into middle and even elementary school.

“For girls the critical turning point is middle school – if we can get girls interested in coding and computer science in middle school we have a much better chance of keeping them interested as they move into high school.” Talking more specifically about Black Girls Code, which is tackling two under-represented groups in technology and computer science, what additional misperceptions or prejudices exist and how are you tackling those challenges?

PrintBryant: “I talk a lot about the intersection between race and gender, and my own experiences as a woman of color going into electrical engineering. About 18% of people entering computer science are woman, but in electrical engineering it is less than 3% women. Going through college, and into industry and management, there were challenges I faced that my peers didn’t by being both a woman, and a woman of color. There is a different set of challenges for women of color in technology not faced by women in general.

“African American women only receive 3% of the degrees in computer science, and for Latinas and Native Americans it’s less than 1%. So even though the numbers for women are abysmal, the numbers are even worse for women of color. Because of that reality, I believe the specific focus of our organization is necessary. We are able to reach into communities and build programs that target a group that is often overlooked, because even in programs that are targeting women, the percentage of women of color in these programs is very low. That’s why we feel our work is important. Our programs are culturally centered in addition to teaching computer programming; we have women of color that are instructors and mentors, and we try to incorporate culturally sensitive subject matter, and create a warm and inclusive environment that encourages students to come back.” What are your plans for this year in the Bay Area and nationally as your organization grows?

Bryant: “The Oakland Area is our home base and while we support the Bay Area as a whole, we are looking to expand into the Peninsula, Palo Alto and San Jose, to broaden our reach. One of the programs we are really looking forward to in the 2014-15 school year is a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District that will allow us to create a specific after school program for their students. This initiative is an important step in working closer with school districts. We’ll continue our after school and weekend programs throughout this school year.

“Nationally we have over seven chapters in the US, in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, Las Vegas and beyond, and we’re growing 8-10 additional chapters this year. We’re in South Africa now and are looking at other African countries, as well as hoping to start an organization in London this year which would be our first European chapter.

“We’ll also be part of the Yes We Code movement as well as Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization, with the goal of helping teach 100,000 kids of color to pursue computer science.” What message do you have for students reading this article?

Bryant: “Just do it. Trust your instincts. Believe in yourself. You can learn to code and you’ll surprise yourself!”

Black Girls Code logo

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