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Girl Code: Missoula Girls Compete In App Development Competition

Rebecca Rice

In America’s booming high tech economy, women are vastly underrepresented. Only four in 1,000 female college freshmen want to major in computer science, and 50% of women who are in science, technology, engineering, and  math careers leave the workforce.

An organization called Technovation is working to change those statistics. Google, Twitter, MIT, and others are backing Technovation’s technology entrepreneurship program and an annual competition for girls ages 10 through 18.

In February, four Missoula girls entered the 2015 competition to create a smart phone application that will benefit their community. Team Missoulovation conducted user research, created a business plan, designed the app, and developed a prototype.

Rebecca Rice, serving with AmeriCorps-Vista at the Missoula Public Library, is the group’s coach.

"We are using MIT App Inventor as the program to develop the app, for the back side and for the designing side. That’s been really cool," says Rice, "I’m really glad that MIT has technology like that that’s free for everyone to use.

Fourteen-year-old Sophia Richter wrote up the business plan and the description for the app, which they are calling Missoula Explorer.

"All of the businesses in the app, including restaurants and shops, are local, which benefits the community of Missoula," Richter says. "Also, we have a couple of historical tours in the app, and so we can enrich the minds of people living in Missoula of Missoula’s history.

Each team in the Technovation Challenge requires the participation of a professional. June Noel, a coder and Corporate Identity Manager for The Washington Companies, is the team’s technical advisor.

"They really had to think about what app they could build that would help the community, but then at the same time make sure that they could actually build it."

February through April, the girls met for two and a half hours every Monday after school, sharing ideas and learning how to work together. They also earned a huge dose of self-confidence—by making mistakes.

"Building something from scratch… it doesn’t matter if it works or not," Noell explains. "In the beginning, it’s not gonna work, that’s how it is, you know. It’s like step-by-step. You build something, you build something , then you just keep troubleshooting and, you know, trying to make it work. And that’s what coding is. You shouldn’t be afraid to mess up, really."

"I started coding when I was 12 and I was able to go to college and the university paid for my room and board because I was working for them, you know, coding. And after college I never had a problem finding a job. So I just want more kids to have more opportunities like that."

When the work was all done, the team enjoyed a pizza party with their families, coach, and mentor.

Clancy Kenk thinks Missoulovation was a great opportunity for his daughter.

"I read in a magazine about two years ago, that in California they’re doing these coding classes that kids go to starting in fourth or fifth grade. And as they progress through school their job opportunities when they graduate will be much larger if they know something about coding because virtually every business uses some kind of program. And so if they understand how those programs go together and how they could implement new things into the program they’ll be much more hirable by a prospective company. And I hope they run it again next year. I think it’s great for Missoula kids to have this kind of opportunity to learn coding."

Ten-year-old Shandee Reed thinks working on the Missoula Explorer app has been a valuable experience.

"I think the coding part could be really useful in the future," Reed says.

But will she consider coding as a career choice?

"Uhm… maybe."

Teams from 60 countries have signed up for Technovation 2015. Missoulovation’s Sophia Richter, Chloe Kujawa, Shandee Reed, and Haley Wolsky will find out in July if their team has been chosen for the semi-finals and a chance at a cash prize to develop their app. In the meantime, they’re hoping local businesses demonstrate some interest in Missoula Explorer.

You can watch https://vimeo.com/125854918" target="_blank">Missoulovation’s pitch video and https://vimeo.com/125842751" target="_blank">demo video here.

Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at PRX.org and MTPR.org.
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