Tech program for girls ready to launch statewide initiative

Founder of the Big Sky Code Academy Devin Holmes, right, joins Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and coding students Ailey Robinson and Sophia Richter in announcing a new statewide Montana Code Girls curriculum in Missoula on Thursday. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

A program born in Missoula last year to give girls and young women the skills needed to pursue a STEM education and break through long-standing gender barriers is going statewide this academic year, as Montana Code Girls expands its reach.

Devin Holmes, founder of the Big Sky Code Academy and Montana Code Girls, joined Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in Missoula on Thursday – along with several graduates of last year’s pilot course – to say the program is looking to enroll 150 new students across the state this year.

“We know we have a gender diversity challenge in the technology sector,” said Holmes. “The more we can do to encourage the use of technology, and the more we encourage girls to study that when they go on to higher education, it ultimately results in a better workforce.”

Montana Code Girls began last year as a pilot program with four students through the Technovation Challenge organized by AmeriCorps. The program challenged girls to build a mobile app that solved a social challenge in their community.

Ailey Robinson and Sophia Richter, both students at Hellgate High School, entered the challenge under the sponsorship of Montana Code Girls to create an app that addressed depression.

The resulting product contained a self-evaluation test built on the PHQ-9 depression test questionnaire used by psychologists. The app also contained a history function, where users can see the results of past tests. It also offered helpful resources vetted by their school psychologist.

“Creating this app helped us understand depression, and it helped us understand how to help someone else with depression,” said Robinson. “By attempting to solve a problem using coding, the Technovation Challenge gave us an understand on how to code, and the business aspect of coding in creating an app.”

Students enrolled in Montana Code Girls learn more than coding. Students learn the entrepreneurial skills of writing a business plan, doing a pitch video and completing a market analysis. Richter said the program inspired her to reach out to other young women and tell them it’s okay to code.

She described it as an important part of the technology future, one she encourages other girls to explore.

“We strongly believe that all people, including young women, should learn how to get involved with technology and coding,” said Richter. “By getting young women interested in technology and not shying away from it, we can have a position in that industry. Women need to be represented in the sciences.”

It’s a point on which Bullock agreed, especially as his administration continues to tackle the disparity in pay between men and women in Montana. Having a more diversified workforce will help businesses succeed while breaking down gender barriers, he said.

“Here we are 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, and women make on average 74 cents on the dollar that men do for like positions,” said Bullock. “We want to make sure there’s pay equity and gender equity in the workplace. If we want to erase those barriers, we have to engage (girls) down to the grade-school level.”

According to Holmes, a recent study found that girls who take Advanced Placement computer science classes are 10 times more likely to study computer science in college. Encouraging girls to embrace technology at a younger age could go far in shaping the state’s future workforce, and change stubborn social challenges.

Missoula County Public Schools, the Missoula Public Library and the state’s colleges and universities are working to achieve similar goals, Homes said.

“If you want to participate, it doesn’t matter where you live,” Holmes said. “If you have a computer and Internet, we will find a way to support you.”