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Miami nonprofit Code/Art aims to increase women in tech jobs

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Gissel Paz, 11 a student at Code/Art, a successful nonprofit that teaches coding skills to young girls, looks at a computer screen while completing her classwork during a lesson at the offices of the nonprofit in Miami, Florida on Monday, October 4, 2021.

Special for the Miami Herald

On any major job board, you’ll find hundreds of high-paying opportunities in technology. Yet, women hold only about 25% of the jobs in tech nationally. And with women seeking degrees in the field at only half the rate of their male counterparts, how can these numbers improve?

Sobering statistics like these are why Amy Renshaw founded Code/Art five years ago. The Miami-based nonprofit aims to increase the number of girls studying computer science by inspiring them with the creative possibilities of computer programming.

“Looking at the research, the quest is so important because the numbers have really dropped for women in computer science even though the opportunities are so much better,” said Renshaw. Indeed, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women in the field peaked at 36% of the U.S. workforce in 1991 and then fell. For the past decade, the percentage has barely budged.

There are reasons, Renshaw said: Boys tend to get an introduction to coding earlier than girls. Once computers were cheap enough to be in the homes, everything was marketed more toward the boys and girls fell behind, she said. “Google did this study about how girls who had never taken a coding class described coding — and the number one word was ‘boring’.”

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Amy Renshaw, CEO and Co-Founder of Code/Art, a successful nonprofit that teaches coding skills to young girls, looks at the work of Luna Gutierrez, 12, during a lesson at their office on 550 NW 42nd Ave. in Miami, Florida on Monday, October 4, 2021. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

In 2016, Reshaw set out to show girls that coding is actually very creative.

“The answer was through art, and this being Miami with Art Basel and the arts, it was a great fit,” said Renshaw, who was educated at MIT and has had an extensive tech career.

The first step was to bring school-age girls from all over South Florida together for an annual festival with art-centric coding contests. But parents wanted more programming to keep their girls engaged year-round. They got it.

Over the years, CodeArt added weekly CodeHER Clubs. Now there are 10 — in schools, libraries, and through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. The organization also offers LeadHER Clubs for high school girls, partnering with coding academy General Assembly, and it holds summer camps and workshops throughout the year, focusing on underserved communities. Code/Art Fest has grown too, serving up more coding contests plus a tech expo, hands-on trainings, keynote speakers and even a pitch competition for girls K-12 and their teachers.

Now Code/Art’s largest initiative is its professional development program for teachers, mainly art teachers, that aims to transform the way computer science is introduced to students. The teachers are taught how to lead creative coding lessons.

Lisa Hauser, a Miami-Dade County math teacher, developed the curriculum for elementary and middle school art teachers. But middle and high school computer science teachers can participate too.

“We made these amazing, easy to follow step by step videos, which I love because they’re created by former students,” Renshaw said, adding that some teachers put them on the virtual portal in the early days of COVID for students to use.

The professional development program started in the summer of 2019, supported by Microsoft and the Knight Foundation and free for teachers, with the aim of reaching underrepresented communities. Code/Art has taught over 150 teachers to date across 113 mostly Title 1 schools. It has reached more than 6,500 students so far.

In all of Code/Art’s clubs and programs, art is front and center. “We do video games, but there’s a focus on making them really beautiful,” Renshaw said. In another lesson, girls make trading cards of women in computer science and in the process, they’re learning about these women, normalizing that women do pursue computer science.

Code/Art’s signature competition is CodeYourSelf, where students use code to create self-portraits, and the contest was opened up nationally in 2021. A popular theme is “Code Your Future Self,” where girls have envisioned themselves as future presidents, doctors, astronauts, dancers, etc. This year, Code/Art is adding more interactivity and animation to the competition categories including one category called algorithmic art, Renshaw said. “With NFTs blowing up now, we thought it was very fitting this category.”

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Kaylla Torres, lead instructor and program coordinator at Code/Art, a successful nonprofit that teaches coding skills to young girls, helps her students with their classwork at the offices of the nonprofit in Miami, Florida on Monday, October 4, 2021. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Now, five years in, some former students and student instructors are moving through college and into the working world. One of them is Taylor Rivera, a computer science major at Florida International University who has had internships with Oracle and Microsoft. After she graduates next year, she hopes to land a job as a tech product manager.

Rivera took her first Code/Art workshop in 11th grade and now she is a part-time Code/Art instructor. She said she could have explored coding before 11th grade, but it always seemed intimidating. “Code/Art provided a really comforting environment to make mistakes and to learn and to grow,” she said. “And it was fun.”

Rivera is inspired by seeing, for example, a 6th grader with no prior knowledge of coding blossoming and building her projects. A future Miami techie in the making?

In the past year, the tech community in Miami has blossomed too, with hundreds of tech startup founders and investors moving from Silicon Valley, New York and other tech hubs to start and support new technology companies here.

“I think that we are more relevant than ever with the Miami tech movement,” Renshaw said. “We really want the tech talent pool to be locally grown so the people that are already here can participate in the movement.”

How to help

  • Code/Art welcomes donations through its website, code-art.com.
  • You can sign up to volunteer your time at code-art.com/volunteer.
  • You can also become a Code/Art T.E.C.H Ambassador by making a monthly donation to fund scholarships to CodeHER Clubs or apply to be a volunteer CodeHER instructor.
  • More info: code-art.com/tech

This story was originally published October 23, 2021 12:05 PM.