On any given Sunday afternoon, the fifth floor of Fuse coworking space is bustling with bright minds. The building, which is home to start-ups, a student advertising agency and is a few steps away from Scooter’s Coffee, is tucked away in Lincoln Nebraska’s Haymarket area.
But on Sunday, the building is not filled with college students or tech company employees. These inhabitants don’t need coffee to fuel them, and yet their energy bounces off one another and the volunteers that sit next to them.
An instructor stands at the front, smiling. He’s full of explanation, but more than that – patience.
“Today was my second time teaching,” said Nathan Gentry, a Computer Software Engineering student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I’m passionate about learning to improve myself, but also helping others in their process of learning.”
Gentry volunteers his time with Girls Code Lincoln, an organization that educates middle school aged girls in coding, computer hardware and software principles. The 4th-9th graders meet for three hours each Sunday. During that time, they learn designing and computer skills, but they also learn leadership and how to collaborate with one another.
Aakriti Agrawal, the director of clubs and a cofounder of the local chapter, said one of their goals is to empower girls to choose tech for their future career. She has seen research that places middle school as the time when girls decide whether they want to pursue their interests in the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) field.
“That’s kind of the mission behind the organization – just to encourage girls to be more confident and to pursue these types of career paths in STEM, even if not tech exactly,” Agrawal said.
Nicci Peterson, the other cofounder of the group, has seen these girls come into their Sunday club meetings and blossom. She lights up when she talks about the girls they serve.
“These girls are the girls that probably get picked on a little bit, and haven’t found their core group at school, but they have this community at Girls Code Lincoln because they’re all very similar, Peterson said.” They’re girls that love education – that love to learn. They have minds that are extremely curious and inventive, and they love problem solving with each other.”
Peterson has found the benefits of the organization extend far beyond the curriculum they learn.
“So many of these girls have said ‘I feel like I belong here. I feel like this is where I’m going to find my lifelong friends.’ What these girls say about our organization is amazing because that’s not what we intentionally built it for, but now that’s what we want to keep it,” she said.
While Peterson recognizes the short and long term values of this organization on the girls, she also sees it transforming the Lincoln community.
“It would be amazing to keep these girls and their talent in Lincoln and build a pipeline so someday there is no gender gap here because we can control what goes on in our city when we are supported by it,” Peterson said. “And we’re learning through this model if there are people that are extremely passionate and engaged in what these girls are doing this can be done in any community. You just need those people that want this to work; that want it to happen.”