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Young Women Learning to Code; One Girl Scout at a Time

An Ursinus physics professor led a coding lesson for young women who may be future computer programmers. The national program wants to make computer science an option for underrepresented groups.

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a sunny fall afternoon. The sounds of excited chatter emanate from Musser Auditorium in Pfhaler Hall, an atypical noise for a Saturday at Ursinus. Inside, “Welcome to Hour of Code,” is written in large bubble letters in chalk on the black board at the front of the auditorium. Two young girls wearing green uniform vests doodle chalk drawings on the space beneath, giggling quietly.

A leaderful woman stands at the front, faces the crowd and claps five times. The room full of girls, grades K through 12 and a handful of parent chaperones instantly quiets and responds to the claps with two more claps—then silence.

“What you just did there, with the clapping, that’s programming,” said Lew Riley, Ursinus professor of physics. As an educator, one of Riley’s goals is to bring science to underrepresented groups in STEM fields. “That’s what today is about,” he said.

The father of two scouts himself, Riley facilitated the Nov.14 “Hour of Code” event partnership between Ursinus College and the Spring-Ford Girl Scouts. “We program our children to feel certain ways about subjects like math and science,” Riley said. “There are far fewer female computer science students than there are male. Today is about providing young women with direct experience, and having fun with it.”

Nationally, less than 20% of computer science (CS) students are female and only 12% of CS degrees are earned by women. Hour of Code is a national program developed by Code.org designed to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women and underrepresented students of color.

Riley added that in physics, his area of expertise, there is a notable lack of female representation. “Women involved in physics at the undergraduate level tend to opt out of the field when it comes to careers, graduate school or pursuing a Ph.D. Hopefully programs like this one will help change that,” he said.

“I wish we had events that integrated STEM like this when I was a Girl Scout,” said Kelly Hunt, troop leader and mother of two scouts. “I heard one girl today say she doesn’t like math while she’s in school, but she likes it while doing the ‘Hour of Code’ activities.”

“I haven’t heard a single ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I want to go home’ all day. I think these girls may want to do this again,” Riley said with a grin.

An Ursinus faculty member since 2002, Dr. Lew Riley received his B.S. in physics from Guilford College and his M.S. and Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Florida State University. He has involved undergraduates in research in experimental nuclear structure and detector simulation since 1998. His research program has been continuously supported by grants from the National Science Foundation since 2000. Riley teaches Spacetime and Quantum Physics, Intermediate Mechanics, Applications of Quantum Mechanics, Thermal Physics and the Common Intellectual Experience.

The “Hour of Code” event was made possible by assistance from Ursinus faculty members Lisa Grossbauer and Tom Carroll, and students Ben Allwein, Chase Babrich, Rose Blanchard, Jacob Hollingsworth, Kelly Johnson, Alexa LaMontagne, Garrison McCammon,Temi Olafunmiloye, Jacob Paul, Katrina Raichle and Veronica Sanford.