Messenger: St. Louis girls team breaks through the coding gender barrier

Theresa Fister
Visitation Academy sophomore Theresa Fister, 15, talks about her GlobalHack VI win with state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

When Bella Moak describes her GlobalHack VI experience, she does so in broad, life-altering terms.

“It felt really empowering,” says the 15-year-old sophomore at Visitation Academy.

As the only all-girls team at the worldwide coding competition held at Chaifetz Arena last month, Bella and her middle-school and high-school teammates stood out in a space filled with more than 1,000 bright and ambitious students and professionals.

In the end, they won first place in the youth division and second place overall, taking home $50,000 and besting hundreds of teams of college students and professionals by designing a cellphone app to make it easier for homeless people to find a warm meal and a place to sleep.

The lessons will stick with the five girls from Missouri and Illinois for the rest of their lives.

“Don’t be scared,” Bella says, in offering lessons learned for other young coders, particularly girls. “Never underestimate yourself.”

Their quest started about a year ago when the girls all met at a coding camp run by model Karlie Kloss. The camp, and others like it, are an attempt to reverse a disturbing trend in the male-dominated coding field, where only 25 percent of the jobs go to women, and where women earn only 15 percent of the computer science degrees awarded by major research universities.

At the Kode with Klossy camp, Bella and two of her fellow Visitation students — Caroline Gaughan, 14, and Theresa Fister, 16 — met Emma Stoverink, a 16-year-old at Brentwood High School and Lauren Crowe, a 14-year-old from Red Bud High School in Illinois. The five set up a chat room to talk about coding and soon entered their first high school hackathon.

They won.

That led to a sponsorship to pay for the GlobalHack competition founded by St. Louis entrepreneurs Gabe Lozano, Drew Winship and Travis Sheridan.

Over two-and-a-half days and little sleep, the team of St. Louis area girls put their minds together on how to help get myriad nonprofit agencies in the region to better coordinate services provided to the homeless. From the beginning, they focused on a strategy that might help the coding profession better understand why it needs more women in its ranks.

“A huge part of our day was just talking about what to do,” Theresa says. “We were not afraid to compromise and collaborate.”

The girls focused on the user experience. Having learned at a panel discussion on homelessness that about 90 percent of the homeless have access to a mobile phone, they designed an app that was easy to use, had bright, simple colors, and could be translated into four languages: English, Spanish, French and Bosnian. The program uses QR codes so that while at a soup kitchen on the south side of the city, for instance, a homeless person could scan their phone and be told where the nearest available beds were that night. It also had an audio function that Lauren designed.

It was, perhaps, the most frustrating and difficult challenge the team faced.

“I’m not a quitter,” says Lauren. “Once I start something, I have to finish.”

Being one of the top teams at GlobalHack is only a beginning, not just for the girls and what comes next, but for their app. The nonprofit GlobalHack and the winning teams will now go through a further process of collaboration, taking the best pieces of the winning entries and trying to produce an end product that can be put to use by St. Patrick Center and other members of the umbrella Continuum of Care agencies that serve the homeless in St. Louis. Eventually, the work of five high school students from St. Louis could contribute to a worldwide solution that seeks to make delivery of homeless services more efficient.

Most of the girls plan to put their winnings into a college fund, though the youngest, Caroline, hopes to persuade her parents to use some of the money to buy a dog. When they go to college, they hope to be part of a trend that changes a profession that has leaned a little too heavily on men.

In that regard, GlobalHack provided some hope.

While most of the professional and college teams were male-dominated, many of the youth teams had girls. The National Center for Women and Informational Technology says that statistics are starting to skew in women’s favor, if the number of girls and young women seeking education in the computer science field ultimately transfers to the profession.

In 2015, the center reports, just less than half of those taking the Advanced Placement calculus test were female, but even that number lagged in computer science, where only 22 percent of the people who took it were female.

The experience of Bella, Caroline, Emma, Lauren and Theresa should give hope to girls who seek to enter this field. Their ability to look at problems differently gives them a path to success.

“Getting more girls into the field is so important,” says Lauren.

Sitting in the arena before the GlobalHack event began, Bella remembers being a bit intimidated, looking out among the crowd of older people, most of them men. But she’s intimidated no more.

She has advice for girls like her who want to code:

“You’re just as strong as the other men out there.”

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