Grinnell’s Girls Who Code group strives to close gender gap in tech jobs

March 29, 2024 — After learning coding in all-girl programs growing up, Mia Hines ’24 and Istar Abdullahi ’25 can attest to the effectiveness and importance of the Girls Who Code program in its mission to foster diversity in computer science.

Hines and Abdullahi are leaders in the Grinnell College Girls Who Code student organization that is mentoring fifth- and sixth-grade girls and nonbinary students at Grinnell Middle School.

Mia Hines ’24
   Mia Hines ’24

“It’s discouraging to see the statistics that show how few women are in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] careers, so we start with middle school students because studies have shown that girls and nonbinary people start walking away at that age from STEM because of those environments,” Hines says. “We can provide programming that they can feel comfortable and excited about. They will gain confidence in their STEM abilities and grow confidence within themselves. We want to fight against the gender gap but also grow them as people.”

On Mondays after school, a group of eight middle school students meet with five Grinnell College facilitators. With funding from the Ragnar Thorisson ’11 Endowed Memorial Fund for Social Justice – which supports and inspires service and social innovation in and around the community of Grinnell – Spheros were purchased for the middle schoolers to learn how to use. These small, circular robots can light up and change direction.

“We just started playing with them March 4, but the kids already love it,” Hines says. “We are hoping to teach them how to race with them. Instead of seeing them on a screen with animation, this is a tangible way to use the robots. They will see these codes develop. We are hoping they can produce their own codes by the end of the program. Our goal is to have a display for parents and friends.”

Amy Miller, Grinnell Middle School social worker, says Girls Who Code has been an incredible addition to the offerings in clubs and organizations for middle school students. 

Grinnell Middle School students discuss coding during a Monday after-school session.
Grinnell Middle School students discuss coding during a Monday after-school session with Grinnell College students.

“I particularly love that the program exposes fifth and sixth grade female and nonbinary students to computer science, which is a career path predominantly pursued by males,” Miller says. “There are several potential first-generation students involved in the club as well, so it is wonderful that they are having this experience with positive, smart, and upbeat Grinnell College student facilitators. The facilitators have done an excellent job of creating a safe and fun environment for middle school students to explore computer science.”

Since its founding in 2012, Girls Who Code has been on a mission to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. Through in-person programming, the program has served more than 580,000 people.

One of those was Abdullahi who took part in a summer immersion program while in high school. She now is majoring in computer science and sociology. “I had no exposure to computer science before then. It was so fun to get to work with other young women and to have teachers that were female. There was a lot of community building that happened in addition to learning, and I wanted to bring that to the middle school students here.”

For three years, Hines took part in a similar summer program in St. Louis called Kode with Klossy.

“If I hadn’t started in an all-girls program, I don’t think I would be a computer science major,” Hines says. “I think I would have been intimidated. But because I already have that background with understanding these concepts, I have confidence in myself to stay in this very intense program.”

Istar Abdullahi ’25
   Istar Abdullahi ’25

The Girls Who Code at Grinnell College was founded as a student organization in fall 2022 that is mentored and fiscally supported by the Civic Education and Innovation Office of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS). The first year was largely spent getting logistics figured out, securing transportation, getting background checks complete, and the certification to make sure they could be at the middle school. For six weeks in spring 2023, five College facilitators taught sixth graders how to make their personal website or a blog.

“It went great for those six weeks. We loved it and wanted to do it again,” Abdullahi says. “The kids liked learning, but some parts were too difficult, so that’s why we made it simpler this year.”

There was no set playbook in terms of the curriculum, so organization members had to figure it out themselves, Hines says. “We also had to do our own recruiting. We went to the middle school during lunch to talk with girls. We made flyers and stickers – we’re coming up with all this ourselves.”

The sessions have been a hit with the middle schoolers. “They wanted us to come twice a week and extend the session by another hour,” Hines says while laughing. “One girl said she loved creating things and playing with the robots. It was so interesting to her. This is a time where they can learn and grow and not be evaluated. It can be silly and fun. It’s an experimental place to learn.”

Grant Sackmann ’27, Maria Rodriguez ’26, Lydia Ye ’26, and Mia Hines ’24
The Girls Who Code student facilitators pose for a group shot. Picture left to right are Grant Sackmann ’27, Maria Rodriguez ’26, Lydia Ye ’26, and Mia Hines ’24.

Creative learning experiences was one of the reasons Thorir Ragnarsson and Sigridur Hjaltadotti established a memorial fund for their son, Ragnar Thorisson ’11, after he passed away in 2016. As a student, Thorisson was an active, thoughtful, and respectful leader in the Grinnell community. He was awarded the President’s Medal for his class for best demonstrating the mission and values of a Grinnell education. He also exemplified Grinnell’s ideals of passionate activism and respectful dialogue, demonstrating a deep commitment to building a just and equitable society free from hate and bigotry.

The Ragnar Thorisson ’11 Endowed Memorial Fund for Social Justice has enhanced student opportunities, as well as served as a catalyst for new ideas and approaches. Hines said the Girls Who Code would not be able to exist without the Thorisson Fund. “We wouldn’t be able to come up with our ideas and make this happen at all,” she says. “We wouldn’t be able to drive there and get snacks. The kids would not know about us because we would have no advertising.”

Small, circular orb robots that can light up and change direction.
The Ragnar Thorisson ’11 Endowed Memorial Fund for Social Justice was used to purchase small, circular robots that can light up and change direction.

In addition to the middle school mentoring, the Girls Who Code student group has held events on Grinnell’s campus for their peers this school year. Organization members Amani Alqaisi ’25 and Nifemi Ogunmesa ’25 have marketed the events, which have included a panel and a study break event with board games and boba tea. Those events helped recruit more volunteers for the middle school mentoring program. Joining Hines (who is the facilitator leader) as facilitators are Joyce Gill ’26, Maria Rodriguez ’26, Lydia Ye ’26, and Grant Sackmann ’27. Abdullahi is the president of the student organization, and Ellie Seehorn ’25 is the lesson planner.

“These students are fantastic,” says Susan Leathem Sanning, associate dean and director of civic engagement and innovation. “The way they are supporting equity in their field, girls’ confidence in themselves, and women’s leadership in computer science inspires so much hope.” 

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information

Grinnell students interested in getting involved with the Girls Who Code can contact Istar at To learn more about funding for a community project, visit the Ragnar Thorisson ’11 Endowed Memorial Fund for Social Justice webpage on the CLS site.

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