Inspiring Girls to Code Inspired Me: Allegra Shippyby@brianwallace
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Inspiring Girls to Code Inspired Me: Allegra Shippy

by Brian WallaceNovember 18th, 2022
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Allegra Shippy, a software engineer at Bandwidth, wanted to inspire girls to consider careers in STEM. Shippy wanted to demystify computer science and make coding fun for sixth and seventh grade girls. The program was interactive, competitive, and fun, but not too complicated that it would be confusing for the students. The girls were a little overwhelmed at first, but once the game started picking up, they saw them really set their minds to it, saying “Ok, we got some ways to cheat” and stepping up the pace.
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After being a developer for around three years, Allegra Shippy, a software engineer at Bandwidth had taken for granted all the software and techy concepts that serve as a foundation for knowledge. So, when given the opportunity to teach sixth and seventh grade girls basic concepts in computer science, she had to think way back to the beginning. 

Q: What does your team work on at Bandwidth? 

A: I’m a software developer at Bandwidth, a communications technology company, working on our emergency services product. Emergency services is a great product to work on, because we’re literally saving lives by reducing the amount of time it takes for emergency responders to reach people in need when they dial 911. However, I took the job primarily because of how close-knit, fun and enthusiastic the team was. 

In June, my team had an opportunity to participate in an event to inspire middle school girls to consider careers in STEM, through GESTEM (Girls Exploring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). As a woman who benefited from STEM programs myself, I really wanted the team to create something informative, but also engaging for these girls, to get them really excited about computer science. 

Q: How did your own experience impact why you wanted to inspire young women to pursue STEM? 

A: In my free time, I’m also a girls’ volleyball coach, working with the same age group. I never hear them saying they want to go into computer science when they’re older. It’s always doctors, vets or professional athletes. Thinking back to when I was that age, I hadn’t even heard of software development, beyond just super nerdy hackers from TV or movies. 

But I liked math, so when I went to college my first instinct was to try mechanical engineering. Were it not for the one required Comp Sci 101 class I had to take, I wouldn’t have been exposed to the field I fell in love with and started my career. I liked how writing code was like solving a puzzle and when you ran your program you would instantly get feedback if you solved it or not. I also liked having a kind of secret understanding about how everyday apps I used like social media and Youtube actually worked. So many people take for granted how incredibly complicated our digital world is and how many people it takes to build and maintain it. 

Q: How did you get students to interact with complex ideas? 

A: Our hope was to demystify computer science and make coding fun for these girls. We chose APIs as our anchor concept, because it’s a really easy one to understand, and is basically the backbone of so many things. Not to mention super great for creating analogies!

To translate the concept of an API to a 6th grader, we wanted a program that was interactive, competitive, and fun, yet at the same time not too complicated that it would be confusing. We went with a tic-tac-toe game where the girls were the clients and would submit their HTTP requests to the servers–played by myself and my fellow volunteers–who kept track of the tic tac toe board state. 

We started by giving a brief overview of the internet and APIs, explaining how the internet is a tangible network, and APIs make all the different parts interactive.  We split the girls into teams and handed out documentation, explaining that if you want to interact with an API, you have to have the proper tools. We also talked about the importance of reading documentation. 

The game was set up so that there were a lot of different ways for the girls to interact with the API and make moves. They had to look through the documentation, learn how to structure an HTTP request, submit it to the servers and wait for a response code that would let them know if their move was successful. 

Q: Was it challenging? What were the results? 

A: The girls were a little overwhelmed at first, but once the game started picking up, we saw them really set their minds to it, saying “Ok, we got this,” and stepping up the pace. 

We sprinkled in some secret ways to cheat the system, like moves where they could delete the other team’s moves, play as the other team for a round, or even start another board. 

As the girls took on a daunting task–interacting with an API for the first time with only the documentation to get started–we saw them creatively adapt and problem-solve. In the process, before our eyes they shifted into the mindset of a true developer.

Q: What was your key takeaway from the experience? 

A: It was really awesome seeing these girls engage with computer science for the first time. Most of them really seemed to grasp the concept of an API, and many of them were absolute natural early developers, embracing the creative spirit of problem solving.  In short, I saw many of them start to open their eyes in the same way I did in my first experience with computer science back in school. Overall, working with these girls in STEM was a really cool and rewarding experience!