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Girls Can Code Ethiopia

Girls from 10 Ethiopian high schools got a boost in their internet and technology skills from the Girls Can Code Project, a 30-week course designed to give them the hands-on skills and confidence they need to pursue computer science at the university level. 

The project, which was funded with a $9,600 grant from the Public Affairs Section of the Secretary of State’s Global Partnerships, allowed 40 eleventh grade girls to learn coding using Python language, application software such as spreadsheets and presentations, internet search skills, website development and HTML editing, and game or application development.

For girls in Ethiopia, a career in one of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—is an unlikely future. Women make up less than one fifth of the university STEM graduates in Ethiopia. Just 7 percent of technology and engineering researchers in the country are women, according to UNESCO.

While girls in preparatory schools in the capital usually have experience with word processing and other basic computer functions, they often have no previous exposure to coding.

Mulugeta Assefa, WiderNet Project’s field associate in Ethiopia, says sparking their interest in coding was a first step to showing them a world of options in STEM, and giving them a start with a highly employable skill.

“The goal of the project was to increase the involvement of girls in STEM when they join university, as the number of girls in the field is less than 20 percent,” says Assefa.

Girls were selected from 10 preparatory schools after being nominated by their teachers and evaluated based on a survey that ascertained their interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Out of the 100 girls who sat for the exam, the top four students from each school were invited to participate in the project.

In her remarks at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa at the launch of the Girls Can Code project, Ambassador Patricia Haslach said it endeavored, “to teach the 40 bright and outgoing high school girl students who have been selected the essential computer, IT and life skills that will help you succeed at university.”

Making the point that these girls could succeed in a male-dominated field even stronger, female university students led the training sessions each week, serving as instructors and role models.

“It tells the girls that, look there are such type of girls who already had joined STEM, are competent and some also score better than boys,” says Assefa. “You can also do the same.”

He says having other girls run the course also helped participants be at ease and learn freely while allowing them to talk about their educational experiences.

WiderNet Project also supported the girls with a dedicated portal akin to a special library collection full of resources on coding, programming, and other computer-based skills.

Digital librarian Laura Ashcraft says crafting the curated, intuitive collection for the girls to use as a resource was like building a brand new library from scratch.

Even though it was for high schoolers half a world away, Ashcraft was committed to giving them the high-quality resources they needed. “I’m going to build this as if I were building it for Yale,” she thought to herself as she started creating the portal.

Ashcraft used a curriculum outline from the Durham Public Library and created a carefully cultivated repository of materials that corresponded with the Girls Can Code course. When asking for permissions to use web-based content from computer science professors and developers, Ashcraft says she got a lot more yesses than nos. 

“The great thing about this particular collection is that seven out of ten people said yes- take it,” she says. “I love this job. People just gave…they really did. People were just very, very kind.”

The portal included practical reference material on html, CSS, JavaScript, and best practices for building websites that are organized for users and easy to update. “The sooner they understand that the better off they’re going to be when they find a job,” says Ashcraft.

After 30 weeks of Saturdays spent learning and coding, the girls received a copy of the collection Ashcraft created on a USB drive, for use as a resource. Jill Biden spoke at the Girls Can Code commencement event in July 2016.

“Because of the education you are getting, you are setting out on a lifelong path where most of all, you will have the confidence and tools you need to succeed,” Biden said.

Girls Can Code may have truly changed the trajectory of some of its participants’ careers. Assefa says a majority of the girls have since gone on to college—and to computer science majors.