Get With the Program

Kids turn hackers at the Public Library; girls wanted

The world of children’s computer programming is brimming with toy-like interfaces that allow the user to build an ice cream cone or make a tortoise walk across the monitor to pleasing visual effect.

"And it gets you no closer to the real business of programming," says Mark Galassi, an astrophysicist at Los Alamos National Lab. This is part of why he runs a 10-hour, one-weekend crash course at the Santa Fe Public Library called Serious Computer Programming for Youth.

The class is intended for elementary, middle and high school students—even those as young as 8 years old—and is free with the caveat that participants have to bring in an old computer that can be wiped clean. Loaners are available, but students are encouraged to ask their grandpa or knock on their neighbors’ doors, the idea being that out-of-use computers are abundant.

“Oh yeah, I’ve got one at home,” says Adam Reilly, a reference librarian and camp coordinator. “They’re slow, they’re neglected—but for their purposes, for coding, it doesn’t matter.”

The first few hours of the course are dedicated to installing a Linux operating system onto the old piece of hardware. “It’s what’s used in all the engines that run the world,” Galassi says, listing Google, Amazon and LANL. “There’s this feeling of ownership, once they’ve installed their own operating system on what they thought was a dead computer,” he adds. “They’re just really ready to program.”
Students spend the rest of the course learning the coding language Python and, by the weekend’s end, they will have built a reasonably sophisticated tic-tac-toe game.
For the upcoming course on Saturday and Sunday June 23 and June 24, Galassi is especially asking that local girls apply.

"It's a sadly fascinating phenomenon how, starting in seventh grade and ending at the end of grad school, the number of girls in the mathematical disciplines—math, computer science, electrical engineering, physics—goes from 50 percent to pretty much zero," he tells SFR. "It's terrible."

Among the inhibitors to access, he lists stereotype threat (the fear of conforming to negative stereotypes about one’s perceived social group), “brogrammer” culture, and parents who press boys to learn computer science but don’t think to offer the same encouragement to girls. After Galassi’s last class turned up all boys, he is now reaching out to local girl’s organizations like Girls Inc.
“Of the many things that can be done,” he explains, “one of the few that I can do, is put a little extra effort into saying let’s fill the class with more girls.”

After the initial course, Galassi offers another on more advanced scientific topics every other Thursday. These, he says, tend to be majority-girl. And even if students don't wind up studying or working in the sciences, Galassi says, "the study of science, math and computer science gives you a pair of glasses to look at everything else that you do that's amazing. Everything is so crisp."

Reilly agrees. “I wish I had taken one when I was their age,” he says. “It certainly would have changed things.”

Registration is open through Galassi at until spaces are filled.

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