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Fueling girl power in tech

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“We can do it!” A majority of the instructors at theCoderSchool in West Portal are women. They want to inspire girls to pursue tech careers. (Joel P. Engardio/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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No one ever expected a tech revolution West of Twin Peaks, the quiet and mostly residential side of town where old San Francisco retreated to after the Summer of Love. Yet demographics changed, and the Google bus arrived.

Now, tech workers are the new face of the Westside because they can afford the home prices. But what’s truly revolutionary on the once-analog Westside are the attempts to close the digital divide.

A branch of theCoderSchool opened in the heart of West Portal this summer, and a majority of the instructors are women. It’s a notable ratio since women hold less than 30 percent of tech jobs.

The school teaches computer programming to kids ages 6 to 17. So far, more boys have enrolled than girls. Yet the school’s owners are determined to cultivate girl power. They hope the female instructors will inspire the girls and condition the boys to see women as tech leaders.

While theCoderSchool works on tech’s gender imbalance, a different Westside initiative aims to address the racial gap.

One mile away is a juvenile detention center that mostly holds kids of color. For them, the digital divide is a chasm when the tech workforce is only 2 percent African-American and 4 percent Latino.

Leif Dautch, a member of the Juvenile Probation Commission, said the detained youth and the tech industry need each other.

“The coding program we’re planning at Juvenile Hall will unleash a lot of untapped talent and potential in these underserved kids,” Dautch said.

The goal is to teach them a marketable skill that could lead to a future career — and a more diverse Silicon Valley.

“I don’t want to see those kids in my day job,” said Dautch, who prosecutes adults as a state deputy attorney general. “Time at Juvenile Hall should focus entirely on rehabilitation and giving kids the skills they need to get their life back on track.”

Dautch acknowledges that coding classes won’t turn the young detainees into Google engineers overnight. But he hopes in the process they’ll learn life skills like problem solving and teamwork. The goal is to spark an interest and self-confidence in computer programming that can be fostered through probation programs, internships and eventual employment.

Generating the spark is the hardest part, especially if kids resist a challenge presented as good for them. That’s why the West Portal coding school uses a fun-focused approach.

Students are encouraged to make computer games that use interactive storytelling. The stories are based on what the kids want to say, which motivates them to keep learning so they can say more.

Parents expecting a strict curriculum can be slow to embrace this teaching style.

“It’s almost impossible to convince a tiger parent that a play-based system is a better way to learn until they see the results themselves,” said school owner Jim Shen. “I didn’t understand it until I saw the effect it had on my own kid.”

When Shen tried to mold his 6-year-old into a becoming a software engineer like Dad, it backfired. His son eventually discovered a passion for what computers could create in a world of play.

“You can’t force kids to learn coding,” Shen said. “But you can teach them how to apply the concepts to whatever interests they have. And that’s powerful because every child’s imagination is infinite.”

Shen plans to keep his instructors engaged with fun projects like building robots that will also enhance their résumés.

One of the female teachers Shen hired is a self-motivated prodigy whose parents never pushed the computer. Only 17, Natalie Lunbeck is entering her senior year of high school and has already competed in a robotics world championship — where she said 75 percent of the participants were boys.

“If teams had girls, the girls often did the artwork and not the actual programming,” said Lunbeck, who belongs to a rare all-girls team. “Teaching at theCoderSchool makes me feel capable because the students trust my ability. They don’t doubt what I say. It also feels good to show the girls that a computer scientist can look like them, and not just a 30-year-old man.”

Back at Juvenile Hall, where most of the detainees are kids of color, Dautch noted that girls of color are a quarter of the population.

Yet Dautch is not bothered that most of the kids learning to code in the vicinity of the detention center are white and Asian children from middle- and upper-income families. Empowering girls from any demographic matters, he said.

“I like to imagine one year from now that the co-leaders of the computer club at a Westside high school are a girl from the private coding school in West Portal and a rehabilitated youth from Juvenile Hall who got an interest in coding because of our program,” Dautch said. “That would be the dream.”

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks in District 7. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at info@engardio.com.

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