Bethlehem “Betty” Gronneberg was in Ethiopia the first time she laid hands on computer programming. It was an old IBM, black and white set-up, using floppy disks the size of book covers. She was one of two women selected to participate in Addis Ababa University’s computer science minor.
She remembers the moment she first “spoke” to the computer through programming, and it came back with a simple “H-e-l-l-o.”
“I like to say it was the start of my love affair with computer science,” Gronneberg says, laughing. “I was mesmerized.”
Her major was Statistics, but from that first class on she was head over heels for coding. She went on to become a software developer for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, married a North Dakota native, and worked at Intel, Sundog and Intelligent InSites for over 20 years of her career.
Yet amidst the diverse array of her work, one theme was consistent throughout.
“I was always the sole female developer,” she said.
“Where are all the women?”
Not only was she one of few, but among the applicants for new positions there were rarely any females. In North Dakota particularly there is a lack of women interested in computer science; here, girls represent 14% of all computer science graduates, whereas the national average is 18%.
Where are all the women?, Gronneberg wondered, constantly.
Her curiosity led her to research and observe where the disconnect was happening, and she traced it back to early education. Her passion became volunteer-teaching in junior high school and early highschool, where she hoped that her presence as a female developer could encourage the other young girls in the room.
“I want kids not just to be the consumers of technology, but the driving force behind it,” she said.
But after the events had ended she had no way of knowing the impact.
“I wanted to …not only excite them [the students] about computer science, but have that sustainable engagement once they are curious about it,” she said.
This is why Gronneberg is launching a new passion project, the culmination of years of encouraging women to code, called uCodeGirl.
uCodeGirl is an organization (in the process of becoming a non-profit) that will offer summer boot camps, after-school classes and alumni meet-ups for young women who want to learn the basics of computer programming.
The goal, Gronneberg said, is to foster an engagement with computer science that can ebb into other ares of the girls’ lives. For instance, women in the program will receive preparation for getting a Major or minor in Computer Science in college.
Gronneberg, uCodeGirl’s Executive Director, is officially launching the program this summer she said. The basic outline for the program consists of three tracks: empowerment, the practicals and engagement.
Track 1: The first track will focus on training girls to think like an entrepreneur and a leader, she said.
Track 2: This will then prepare them for track two, where the students will learn basic computer programming concepts and algorithm development. Girls will conduct projects in design and development for websites, mobile projects, and game development.
Track 3: The third track brings their newfound expertise into the real world. Girls will be partnered with community mentors in the computer science field, take field trips to local tech companies, and job shadow industry professionals.
The final project will be similar to a “mini Startup Weekend,” Gronneberg said, where girls will be asked to creatively solve a real-world problem for a local non-profit.
Pricing for the program is still in the works, Gronneberg said. She did emphasize that the goal is to make it affordable, with many scholarships available. uCodeGirl will operate mainly on grants and donation, with registration only covering a small portion of the cost.
That said, the teachers and mentors in the program will be heavily volunteer based, she said. So far Gronneberg has established a core set of volunteer tutors and a Board to support the organization.
Her goal is to enlist 100 young girls in the program for 2016-2017, she said. Long-term, the goal is increase the 14% of women in computer science.
“Success is 50% female engagement,” Gronneberg said. “Until then, we have not reached success.”
In the end, it comes back to Gronneberg’s own love for computer science, the one sparked years ago at her desk in Ethiopia, and her desire to share that love with more girls and women.
“I want women, who are already empowered, to have that exposure and opportunity and see where it takes them,” she said. “The goal is to have the notion that computer science is only for boys… slowly chipped away.”
Come hear Betty Gronneberg share more (and a special announcement) this Wednesday, 9:15 AM at the Stage at Island Park for 1 Million Cups Fargo!