by Marci Narum  | Submitted Photos

Anyone who’s had experience with kids knows—they don’t miss anything. And let’s face it, who needs to call tech support if you know a teenager (or even a fourth grader) who will have your technology problem solved before you can say the words, “tech support.” But even being masters of all things smart and gadgetry in this age of technology, kids—specifically girls—could miss something as they begin to consider their careers.

“North Dakota job opportunities in technology increased from 576 in 2016 to 935 in 2017,” Betty Gronneberg cites statistics. “The jobs have increased but the number of graduates has stayed the same and even decreased.”

Betty is the founder and CEO of uCodeGirl, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) enrichment program for girls in the Fargo area. She says research has shown that when girls reach middle school, they begin to shy away from STEM-centered activities. She says girls need to be given opportunities and encouraged to explore their tech abilities.

“They react to social pressure, gender stereotype, as well as not having access to opportunities, especially in the rural areas,” Betty explains. “We believe girls are curious, creative, and capable; when they are confident in their abilities and when they  are equipped with the right skills and knowledge, they can do whatever they put their minds to—including coding.”

Betty started uCodeGirl to encourage and instill confidence in young girls, as well as equip them with technical skills. It began with a three-day summer camp in 2016. It’s now a three-week camp.

“We are demystifying technical skills and what it means to be a nerd by making the learning and technology fun. At summer camp the girls dive into coding, design, web development, and robotics projects. They made a light-up scarf and T-shirt by combining art, electrical engineering, and computer programming,” Betty recalls. “Their T-shirts light up to the beat of their heart.”

uCodeGirl sparked enough interest with girls that it also became a year-round skill-based mentorship program. Each girl is paired with a mentor—a professional woman who is a leader in her field. Betty’s next goal is to expand uCodeGirl beyond Fargo. She was in Bismarck in February to visit with business members. She sees the potential for sponsors and partnerships in the business community.

“Tech companies and programmers are excited about having something like this going on in our community,” says Lesley Icenogle, Gateway to Science development director. “uCodeGirl has formed great corporate partnerships in Fargo. It would be great for the entrepreneurial community here to get in on that and be mentors.”

“When we hear that someone is presenting technology and focusing it on girls in particular, that certainly gets our attention,” shares Beth Demke, executive director. “Gateway to Science is all about STEM and offering opportunities to students who maybe don’t see it in other forms.”

Betty Gronneberg

Kids are very young when they are introduced to computer programming at Gateway to Science. Educational outreach coordinator, Courtney Stoltz says she teaches coding to five-year-olds.

“We do a lot of Scratch programming. We have Ozobot robots you can write code for on a computer; or you can simply draw paths and color the lines on paper to make them do something,” Courtney describes. “Little preschoolers and first graders can handle that. That’s coding and they can do it. It’s just a visual way.”

“One of the areas I see as a good collaboration is that uCodeGirl focuses on middle and high school students. Our efforts—with limited resources so far—have been at the elementary level,” says Lesley. “We think it’s important to reach them right away. We have babies and toddlers in here; we want to get young scientists excited and feed the pipeline into middle school, high school, and onto higher ed.”

Ultimately, Betty’s dream is for that pipeline of girls to lead straight to rewarding and high-paying careers in the field of computer science; the upward trend for the foreseeable future. And as young women, they won’t miss out—because they have been encouraged, and they are confident about their intelligence and ability.

“I think it is important to compliment young girls with specific phrases like, ‘I see you are good at math,’” Betty adds. “I am here because of people seeing my potential.”   

Click here to learn more about uCodeGirl and Betty Gronneberg’s story.

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