Code like a girl? Boze Elementary students knock down gender stereotypes in tech camp

11/15/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

Boze Elementary School fifth-grader Nia Montague furrowed her brow as she bent over a drawing board, sketching out the storyline for a mobile app game. 

In her game, players save animals and provide them with homes. To advance to the next level, players must catch all the dogs and cats.

Boze Elementary fifth grade students Jemimah Ssali (l) and Jenny Meir (r) show
instructional coach Shoshanna Cohen how to program in the computer language 
JavaScript during the Alexa Cafe technology camp for girls at the 
University of Washington Seattle.
“Help the animals in the shelter. Adopt a pet today,” her storyboard reads. After finishing her drawing, Montague used the game-creation software Stencyl to build her smartphone-friendly game. 

Eighteen Boze Elementary School girls learned game design, programming and web design this summer at the prestigious Alexa Café technology camp at the University of Washington Seattle. The girls-only camp emphasizes entrepreneurship, leadership and links social causes participants care about with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project. 

Boze students participated in the weeklong camp thanks to a donation from Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company. Tacoma Schools selected Boze students due to the school’s new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) focus and partnership with Technology Access Foundation, a local nonprofit preparing students for college through hands-on, project-centered learning. 

Alexa Café founder Alexa Ingram-Cauchi said the camp, which runs on college campuses across the country, inspires girls to learn about technology, entrepreneurship and supporting each other. 

“My hope is that girls will discover their passion for technology and entrepreneurship and that they’ll take their knowledge base and continue learning, whether that’s in the classroom or teaching siblings or just thinking about technology and its uses in a bigger way,” she said. “We’re always talking about how it just takes one person, just one seed to plant a forest of change.” 

Alexa Café developed as an offshoot of iD Tech, a company co-founded by Ingram-Cauchi that runs thousands of co-ed technology camps across the country. Alexa Café provides girls—statistically less likely to get involved with STEM—with a special setting just for them and keeps instruction personalized: the camp runs at an 8:1 student-to-instructor ratio with plenty of individual teaching. 

Women make up half of the population of the United States, yet females make up only 14 percent of computer science undergraduates, according to Alexa Café. By completing the camp, Boze girls learned more about computer science and related fields. They gained mentors and exposure to a college campus setting, stepping stones toward picturing themselves working in a technology field. 

“By the time these girls are old enough to have technology jobs, they will have the skills and the confidence,” said Shoshanna Cohen, an instructional coach who helps Boze teachers create STEAM projects. 

While student Nia Montague learned to design the mobile game at Alexa Café, her classmates Shelma Arriola and Laraysha Kidd learned the computer programming language java script.   

​Boze Elementary student Celeste DIaz (center) and classmates learn to build
and design online magazines during Alexa Cafe technology camp.

​ ​​​​​​​​​​Together, Shelma and Laraysha worked on a challenge to learn “if/else” logic in java script. The pair wrote code to compare variables and find the largest number. Shelma ran her finger over the code on the computer screen before her, explaining to her instructor what each line meant and asking questions along the way. 

“I love java script,” she said. “It only took me two days to learn it. My favorite part was when I understood it and my instructor jumped up and shouted ‘Touchdown!’” 

Back at Boze for the new school year, the girls put their summer knowledge to use right away. The camp suggested that all the girls teach their classmates—especially the boys—a coding lesson during computer class time. Boze teachers agreed. 

“We’re making it mandatory for the girls to teach the boys some of the skills they’ve learned,” Cohen said. “It will be a great equalizer because it sets these girls up as technology leaders in the classroom.”

The skills nurtured at Alexa Café also prepared students for their fifth-grade, project-based learning assignment at Boze, focused this year on entrepreneurship. All fifth-grade students partner with students from the University of Washington Tacoma, who come to Boze weekly to help students design a product to sell in the Boze school store and build a website for the store. 

The tech camp experience inspired at least one Boze student to think about a tech-related future. After looking around the sleek University of Washington building where the camp occurred, Shelma announced her goals for the future:

“I want to grow up and work here at Alexa Café!”