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What my daughters learned at summer coding camp

They love collaboration and, above all, they are very fast learners when they see what technology can do for them.

My dad, an IT entrepreneur, was adamant that my sister and I have a good toolbox before leaving home. "An extensive toolbox is crucial for your freedom," he would tell his daughters. He gave me a set of wrenches, a hammer, a screwdriver and various other tools, saying, "This is what every woman needs."

Basically, the message he delivered with our toolboxes was, "Educate yourself, rely on yourself, and never depend on any man to support you or do things for you, as that will take away your freedom." He insisted that we develop other, high-value skills; because we are from Sweden, this included learning how to change winter tires. And, by the way, Dad added, "Rinse the sink, and be sure to learn how to code — then you’ll be fine."

The computing industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. It’s also the industry with the highest-paying jobs. That considered, it worries me to learn that the female percentages of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in computing have decreased over time. And it all starts with attitudes, involvement and education.

This summer, I sent both of my daughters, ages 12 and 8, to coding camp.

Girls are avid users and consumers of technology. They create and share enormous amounts of data. But we mustn’t confuse the use of technology with its creation. Many educators and administrators seem to think that by offering computer literacy courses, they are providing students with the technological skills they need. But I think that girls should not merely be part of the future — they should help shape the future.

Research shows that 75 percent of girls choosing an education in computer science have a parent in the computing field. Boys who have a family role model total only 29 percent. My interpretation of these statistics is that boys seem a lot more self-confident than girls, and do not require exceptional family interest and support. Therefore, we need to look at what inspires girls.

This summer, I sent both of my daughters, ages 12 and 8, to coding camp at Stanford University. The focus of their weekly classes is more on learning a skill set rather than on finishing projects. During a whole week of coding, they created a few games, built houses in Minecraft (a Swedish national sport!), and made 3-D printed necklaces, an iPhone case and a hamster with a unicorn. The coding was just a means to create all this and build confidence.

My oldest daughter, Vera, journaled this excerpt from her time at camp this summer:

"This summer I’ve gone to two coding camps, one at Stanford University and one in my hometown in Sweden. My goal was to learn two skills: 3-D printing and electro engineering. At the first camp I spent the week learning more about 3-D printing. My younger sister is obsessed with unicorns and hamsters, and at camp I made it my goal to make her something that was a cross between a unicorn and a hamster. With a 3-D printer, I managed to draw a hamster with a unicorn horn on its forehead— she loved it! At the second coding camp, I was focused on electro engineering. I spent the week 3-D printing a volcano and adding electronics to the volcano to make it glow as if lava was pouring out; it was so cool to see the volcano glow.

Now that I’ve been to a few coding camps, I love it and want to keep learning more. It has made me realize that I need to learn more skills now. I have a vision of creating a tail that can be moved with brain power, and next summer I’ll be attending a robotics coding camp so that hopefully I can bring my vision to life!"

My observation is that they are inspired by a hands-on approach with practical use cases. They like to code with other girls, and they feel uncomfortable in an environment that’s too "geeky" (such as a coding classroom filled with "Star Wars" posters and robots — you get it). They love collaboration and, above all, they are very fast learners when they see what technology can do for them. In this sense, it is like a Montessori approach to teaching coding.

And for those who don’t believe in gender equality, consider this: If we don’t make use of what 50 percent of the population can create, we will miss out on some very cool and useful technology — especially since research shows that diversity improves problem-solving, productivity, innovation and, ultimately, the bottom line.

"Coding is the language of the future," said Jocelyn DeGance Graham, founder of CloudNOW (Cloud Network of Women). "We talk about the importance of empowering girls as they navigate through a minefield of social issues: Unrealistic body image, negative stereotyping of their abilities, and a system that for the most part tells them that's it's okay for them not to be good at math and sciences. Case in point: The "I'm allergic to algebra" T-shirts at Forever 21.

There's no more effective way to set girls up for success than the economic empowerment of having technical expertise. The research indicates that waiting until high school to address the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is an uphill march, and waiting until college makes it a lost cause. Elementary schools are at the front lines of creating change and eliminating gender disparity in the workplace.

Ebba Blitz, the CEO of Alertsec, specializes in fast deployment of IT Security. Blitz has also covered the tech sector as a journalist for more than 20 years, and has moderated events for some of the largest companies in the U.S. and Sweden, including Microsoft, Oracle, Johnson & Johnson and more. Reach her @ebba_blitz.

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