MIDDLETON — When Rachel Woody took her first computer programming class as a freshman at Middleton High School, she was surrounded by mostly boys and wished she had more of a peer group.

“It was pretty intimidating to be one of the only girls,” Woody said.

Woody, who is now a senior, said she felt the same way when she took part in other computer science activities.

“One of the things that really solidifies your interest is the community you create,” she said. “I knew I wanted to leave some kind of impact in Middleton that would make computer science more accessible.”

So in her junior year, Woody started to explore the idea of starting some kind of outreach educational program for girls involving computer science.

At the same time, Grace Steinmetz, then a freshman, talked to Lori Hunt, a computer science teacher at Middleton High School, about starting a computer club at the school, where one had disbanded. It was something Steinmetz had been talking over with her classmate, Shreya Godishala, who was encouraging her friend.

Hunt connected the three girls and they met over the summer to organize a computer science program for girls in grades 4-8. They named it Code CS, for Cardinal Outreach to Diversify and Educate Computer Science.

The girls were expecting about a dozen to sign up, but the program quickly attracted about 35 girls, including fourth-grader Anna Marrero from Pewaukee. They narrowed the list to 30 for a manageable number and more were placed on a waiting list. Hunt is serving as the adviser.

The program is running on eight Saturdays and is covering topics such as algorithms, compilers, project development and app development under lesson plans the high school girls created.

Each class starts with a hands-on icebreaker activity, such as engineering a structure with toothpicks and gumdrops strong enough to hold up a textbook.

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‘Exciting and fun’

The program is funded by a $1,420 grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology. It pays for snacks and will cover future expenses that might include robots. Woody was able to apply for the grant because she has earned the organization’s Award for Aspirations in Computing twice in the last three years.

“Usually, every single time you do something really exciting and fun,” said Iris Zhu, a fourth-grader at Northside Elementary School who hopes her older sister will help run the program when she is in high school.

Several girls said they signed up for the program because their friends did and some met new friends there.

“I’m a really huge feminist so I feel I could have more power (like) boys usually have,” said Amanda Meyers, a seventh-grader at Kromrey Middle School. “Also, coding is a really good talent to have.”

Because there is a waiting list, the girls are considering holding another session next semester. Woody also would like to see the program continue after she graduates so she is getting Steinmetz and Godishala more involved in preparing the lesson plans.

In the future, the program may cover engineering and robotics.

Godishala said she noticed that as she got older, she began to see fewer girls in computer programming classes and fewer opportunities outside of school except camps to learn the skills. Her sister, Shradha, who is a seventh-grader at Glacier Creek Middle School, is taking the class.

“I wanted to give that opportunity to these guys,” Godishala said.

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