Code/Art is Changing the Face of Tech with a Coding Competition

By: Amy Austin Renshaw

Women today earn just 18% (less than 1 in 5) of computer science (CS) bachelor’s degrees in the United States, down from 37% in 1984¹. This drop is even more striking knowing that, during that same period of time, the percentage of female undergraduates in this country rose from 53% to 57%² and demand for computer science skills continued to outpace supply.³

So why the big drop in women earning CS degrees while the overall number of women earning college degrees and demand for CS skills were both increasing? Three things changed in the early 1980s that led to this decline: 1) early access to coding increased for boys over girls when personal computers came out and were marketed almost exclusively to men, 2) depictions of programmers in pop culture were nearly all male, and 3) the stereotype of programmers being anti-social math nerds emerged. To this day, these factors continue to discourage many young women from studying computer science.

I founded Code/Art to change that. Our art-infused coding programs make computer science more accessible to girls at a younger age and show them that coding can be creative and social and isn’t just for top math students. We have weekly coding clubs for girls in grades 3–8, provide curriculum and training to K-12 STEAM teachers, and run special CS events and coding competitions.

My favorite Code/Art competition is our national CodeYourSelf™️ competition for girls in grades 3–12 that takes place each school year. I love this competition because it is easy enough for first-time coders, interesting enough for more experienced coders, and literally changes people’s perception of what a coder looks like!

This year’s challenge was to code yourself in your community. One of the entries that most impressed me was from Isabella, a 7th grader from Miami (see above). Isabella’s self-portrait not only captures the place with her coded palm tree, but also the feeling of being a kid isolated and studying from home during the pandemic. This feeling is conveyed through her facial expressions, head tilt, and headphones — all created through coding!

Isabella shared, “My inspiration for this artwork was Miami. Since I had trouble focusing inside during online classes, I took my classes outside and noticed how nice it was. So, I decided on a painting with a palm tree in the background since it best represents my city. To code this artwork, I used various functions such as the “beginShape();” and “endShape();” functions paired with “vertex();” and “curveVertex();” to make more complex figures. From 3rd grade up until 5th grade, I loved making games in programs like MIT’s Scratch, and Kano’s HackMinecraft, but I [stopped coding in 6th grade when I] prioritized art. When my art teacher said that we’d be making a project for Code/Art, I was hooked. Overcoming these challenges made me more confident in my coding skills and I’ve regained [my earlier] passion and motivation. I plan to continue to develop my skills and be able to use different coding languages to turn my greatest imaginations into reality.”

Code/Art’s CodeYourSelf™️competition also fosters parental involvement, which research shows is key to encouraging girls’ interest and participation in computer science. The parents of a 4th-grade finalist from California actually had a cake made with the likeness of their daughter’s coded self-portrait when they learned she was the Western/Rocky Mountain Grade 3–5 regional winner.

Another parent wrote to us that helping her daughters with her coded self-portrait gave her the courage to try something new.

“I was always interested in Computer Science, but I never pursued it because I didn’t feel like I belonged and wasn’t good enough at math. When [my daughter] began to show interest in coding, I knew I wanted to encourage her, but I was so worried I wouldn’t know how. When she decided to do the self-portrait competition last year, it became an opportunity for both of us to try something new together and challenge ourselves.” — Cyntianna Ortega

This year both of Cyntianna’s daughters entered the Code/Art coding competition, and she shared with us a photo of the two sisters watching the virtual awards ceremony together from home.

On this last day of Women’s History month, I invite you to view Code/Art’s 2021 CodeYourSelf™️ finalists in our virtual reality (VR) art gallery, and see that the future of CS is female!

About Code/Art: Code/Art is a non-profit whose mission is to increase the number of girls studying computer science by delighting and inspiring them with the creative possibilities of computer programming. We strive to put young women on track for future tech careers by providing welcoming early coding programs that focus on art, creativity, and social good.

Founded in January of 2016, Code/Art has reached over 6,000 girls with its programs, which include weekly virtual and in-person coding clubs for girls in grades 3–8, annual coding competition for girls in grades 3–12, professional development for K-12 STEAM teachers, and Code/Art Fest, its annual K-12 STEAM coding conference for girls, educators, and parents.

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¹National Girls Collaborative Project

² Statista

³US Bureau of Labor and Statistics

⁴ When Women Stopped Coding. National Public Radio. 2014

⁵ Women Who Choose Computer Science: What Really Matters. Google. 2014.

Non-profit on a mission to increase the number of girls studying Computer Science by inspiring them with the creative possibilities in programming!