Computer programming can feel inaccessible to young girls. There aren't many positive images of women in science, from the protagonists in video games to the tech billionaires featured in blockbuster movies, and research shows that these cultural stereotypes can deter women from studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To fight back, education programs are taking a new approach to get girls more interested in coding: building virtual reality games.
These programs are offering courses for girls specifically, and instructors are motivating girls to come back to class by teaching them concrete applications for their coding skills. Latching onto a skill like building a game gives girls the chance to see how coding can be applied in a fun and inviting way at a young age.
"It's not just learning to program for the sake of programming," Jandelyn Plane, director of the Center for Women in Computing at the University of Maryland, told Mic. "The goal is to create something, and they can use the creative part of their minds as well as the analytical."
Plane is the founder of the Computer Science Connect program at the University of Maryland. Instead of a short one-week introductory coding course, this program commits middle and high school students to three years of two-week summer intensives and workshops throughout the school years. About 80 students can be a part of the program at a time across the three age group levels.
While the students do learn basic coding skills in PC computer labs during the camp, they also explore different gaming and creative applications for their new coding abilities. The program targets girls specifically, although it's open to any gender.
"My goal is to show them how [computing] connects to everything else and to connect these girls that are interested in tech to each other," Plane said. "We have to show them how [coding] is applied to biology, aeronautics, everything in order to get them excited about why the computer is important."
Students in the program build their skills up from simpler programming languages like Scratch and Lego Mindstorms in the first year to Python and Unity 3D by the final summer. Unity 3D lets students create games that can be used with the virtual reality Oculus Rift headset. The University of Maryland has an Oculus Rift headset the students can use on PCs, and they have access to an "augmentarium" where virtual and augmented reality games come to life.
"It's so new and totally immersive," Plane said. "When they are either wearing the Oculus headsets or in the augmentarium, they can feel totally surrounded by what they are doing and realize how many ways it can be applied."
CompSciConnect is one of the only programs in the country that offers a more long-term continuing education program for young girls in STEM. Digital Media Academy, an organization that provides short-term programming education courses, started offering coding courses entirely for girls last summer.
"We knew that there were probably more girls interested in programming, so we started doing research on what kind of environment we needed to create to build a safe place for girls," Peggy Lee, a regional director for the Digital Media Academy, told Mic.
This past summer, the academy offered a number of intro to Java courses exclusively for girls. Based on demand and the success of the initial year, they will offer four courses for girls next summer, including an advanced class in game design. Lee noticed that girls were interested in building their own games even in the intro sessions.
"It gave the girls an option to play with characters that reflected them," she said. "The storytelling aspect is really key to it. I think they have a story they want to tell. Games have a narrative structure, and I think it's really appealing to girls."
While the Digital Media Academy virtual reality classes aren't offered as girls-only options yet, Lee said that they are one of the most popular courses offered.
"It was a way for people to express their creativity and guide their way through an interactive story or a piece of art," she told Mic. "Girls are very interested in virtual reality and augmented reality. It's something that has captured their imagination."
Digital Media Academy offers more than 50 classes a summer in 23 locations. The courses are offered to children as young as six and go up to an early adult level. Lee believes encouraging girls to study STEM by fostering nurturing educational environments and bringing in role models is key to shrinking the gender gap in the field.
"We know that early exposure, role models and positive experiences help build confidence," she said. "That actually goes a really long way. I think it's necessary for girls to feel like they are a part of something really meaningful."