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'Girls Who Code' inspires teens to learn about tech

'Girls who Code' is a program that trains young women for jobs in so called STEM jobs-science, technology, engineering and math - fields where women continue to experience a gender gap. NBC's Janelle Richards reports.          

By Janelle Richards, NBC News

NEW YORK --  School was out and summer had finally arrived, but instead of hanging out at the beach teenager Jocelyn Stevens was sitting in front of a computer, using a software program to design jewelry. With just a click of her mouse, Stevens created a ring and used a 3D printer to produce it.

Before taking part in the eight-week summer program Girls Who Code, 16-year-old Stevens said the only thing she knew about technology was how to play computer games.

She wanted to change that.

"I felt like this program would benefit me, and I felt like I would rather do something that would be benefit me, than not doing anything [this summer]," Stevens said.

Now, Stevens is familiar with mobile applications. Last week she worked with her team – three other girls in the program -- to create an app that shows parents where they can take their families around New York City.

"Somewhere in my future, not so far from now, I could see myself doing computer science," she said.

And that's exactly what Girls Who Code aims to do: develop a passion for technology among girls who have not had much exposure to the field.

Changing perceptions 

The program was created by Reshma Saujani, a former deputy public advocate for New York City.

"I think that this world would look like a very different place if we had more female developers and coders and engineers and entrepreneurs," said Saujani. "Girls are so passionate about technology...it's simply not the case that they aren't interested and it's not the case that they're not good at it....it's just that there's a perception out there that they're not interested, that they're not as good as the boys and that's exactly what we're changing every single day."

Saujani ran for Congress in 2010 and was struck by the number of girls in a public housing project who were interested in technology but did not have the resources to pursue it. 

"They had like one computer in the basement of a church," said Saujani. "And then I'd be on the Upper East Side at a private school where there was a robotics lab -- and you saw how technology can be a huge equalizer, but it can enhance poverty if we're not giving young girls and young boys equal access."

The inequalities Saujani witnessed motivated her to start Girls Who Code this year. The students in the program are diverse, representing 12 different countries.

In addition to teaching the students hands-on skills like programming and coding, Saujani and executive director Kristen Titus are also preparing them for a future career at a major technology company. They partnered with Google, Intel, AppNexus and Twitter, among others, to help shape their summer curriculum and asked the companies what skills future employees need to be successful in the technology field.

Those companies also help fund Girls Who Code, making it free of charge for the students. Eventually, they plan to offer internship opportunities. 

"We've built out a robust curriculum that teaches the girls everything from robotics to web design to how to build a company, how to build a mobile app, what is a bank account, how do I get a loan, all of these hard and soft skills that we know are instrumental," said Kristen Titus, executive director of Girls Who Code.

Closing the gender gap in STEM jobs

Developing women's interest in science, technology, engineering and math (often referred to as STEM) is an important goal for Girls Who Code. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported women are underrepresented in STEM undergraduate degrees and jobs. In 2009, there were 2.5 million college-educated working women with STEM degrees, compared to 6.7 million men. And throughout the past decade, women have held less than 25 percent of STEM jobs even though they fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy.

Similar programs are popping up around the country. In Washington, D.C., CodeNow and Youth Lab train high school girls and boys, too. The students learn how websites work and are paired with mentors throughout their learning process. 

In San Francisco, Calif., Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer, started Black Girls Code in April 2011 after she attended several technology events in Silicon Valley and noticed the lack of women and minorities at the events.

“I was networking to start my own company,” said Bryant. “And then I ended up starting this nonprofit that directly introduces girls to technology and gets them in the pipeline.”

Black Girls Code offers classes for girls ages 6 to 20 on how to develop video games, build a website, and study robots. And this summer, the program is hosting one-day workshops for minority students in several cities including Chicago, Atlanta, New York and Las Vegas.

'I think I'm going to change the world someday'

Back in New York City, the students at Girls Who Code are already thinking about how they can give back to their communities.

Khady Samb, 16, moved to the Bronx from Senegal in March 2011.

"Being here is like, it was my dream, I didn't know anything about computers," said Samb. "We had them [in Senegal] but I didn't know a lot of things on it. Here, it's like I have anything I need and I learned something about computers that I never learned, it is very exciting."

Just a few weeks into the program, Samb says the skills she has learned may help her Senegalese community one day.

"I think I'm going to change the world someday," said Samb. "I'm going to go to my country and help them use the computer and I will do it for free and I think that will change the world. I have a lot of things to think about." 

To learn more about these programs, visit the websites below: