Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2016

Kai Orton Photo by Sally Ryan



Girls with the Power to Code

By Marilyn Sherman
Civ\activist Qiddist Hammerly Champions Juvenile Justice, Education Reform
Photo by Sally Ryan

“It didn’t occur to me that there would be roadblocks when I first realized I was interested in computing and science,” says research assistant professor Kai Orton, who pursued a career in computational molecular biology. Now she’s trying hard to make sure that other girls have the confidence and opportunity to enter computational careers.

With her innovative computing clubs, Orton takes girls on a path from fearing failure to gaining computational confidence, competence and interest. “Computing skills are skills that you can grow with, and your career can grow too. You can engage in problem-solving and be creative,” Orton tells the girls in her clubs, called Computational Thinking for Girls (CT4G).


Currently Orton leads weekly clubs at Chicago’s Lindblom High School to introduce girls to computational thinking. “My passion is reaching those students who are underserved, underrepresented, maybe don’t have all the opportunities,” says Orton, who was one of the first indig-enous students in her college computing classes. Certainly girls are underrepresented both in STEM and in computing, and in the CT4G schools many of the students are underrepresented ethnically too.

“For these girls who have never taken computer science, never seen a line of code, the club should provide a safe learning and exploring space and as many opportunities for an entry place as possible,” Orton explains. Part of the vision for the CT4G learning community is for girls to be surrounded by their peers in a “local environment of colleagues and role models.”

The CT4G program, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, is in its second year, with 53 girls in two clubs that meet weekly. Meetings alternate between project-based units and “hack days,” when the room explodes with ideas, according to Orton. Her innovative approach is to design open-ended, inquiry-based projects that give the girls creative license to pose their own questions and opportunities for hands-on design. “It’s unique to be able to write your own programs, from your concept,” she says.


Curriculum units include learning three different programming languages, experimenting with tiny computers called arduinos and programming mini robots called ozobots. The girls also ponder engineering design challenges, including how phone apps work and how video games are designed. Then they tackle 3-D printing and working with big data, such as deep data about myriad aspects of the city of Chicago. “It’s interesting to see what activities the girls light up with,” says Orton.

The results have been promising—with research showing the girls growing in confidence and skills by the end of the year and showing increased interest in a computing career. “They see that computation isn’t their initial perception of a little nerdy figure sitting all alone at a table. Computing careers are everywhere, in every field. Having the tools is only going to benefit you on your path,” Orton notes.

“I’m keenly interested in understanding how to foster positive computational identity and knowing what factors are responsible for that for young women,” says Orton. Is it the mentoring, peers, activities?

At first, girls often enter the club with looks of intimidation and trepidation, as well as deep curiosity. “It made me determined as a scientist to create curriculum that would justify all of their interests,” says Orton, who enjoys watching the girls eventually leave their fears outside the door. “I don’t think there should be fear of exploring in young people—it’s so essential to building identity and under- standing of the world around you.”


Orton herself naturally gravitated to a computational career. Growing up on a reservation, she enjoyed tinkering with objects, creating video game “cheat codes” and fixing things, which prevented her from worrying about what she could and could not do. Moreover, she had strong female role models in her mother, who studied biological anthropology; her grandmother, a veterinarian; and her great-aunt, a community elder. It was only in college that she paid attention to comments about her “differentness” as a Native American and one of very few women in many computer science classes. “I was too naïve to see the barriers,” she says, expressing the hope that her students too will ignore obstacles and stereotypes.

Knowing the critical importance of role models for young girls, both firsthand and from the research literature, Orton is now taking on the mantle herself. As a role model, she hopes to overcome what students see in the popular media. She says, “I want passionately for people to understand the power of code, the utility of programming, the beauty of data.”