Ninth grader Emma Farrell never imagined that she would be interested in computer science. "I didn’t think coding was something I wanted to pursue because I like drawing and photography, not making websites," says the young New Yorker. Then, earlier this year, she tried Vidcode, a "learn to code" startup designed to appeal to photo-fiend teen girls. Soon she was adding color filters and other effects to mini-movies she had filmed with her friends, using Vidcode’s visual programming interface, and realizing that "coding can be used for creative stuff."
Her favorite Vidcode project? "Definitely this video of my friend and I on a roller coaster. I added a pink color tint so it seemed much more summery and happy." She adds, "Even if it’s not going to become your profession, you can still make cool stuff."
Emma's newfound enthusiasm for programming is music to the ears of Vidcode cofounders Alexandra Diracles, a photographer, and Melissa Halfon, a software engineer. They built the first version of Vidcode over the last year, after observing that girls became far more interested in learning to code if the experience reflected their creative interests and social lives.
"The impetus of Vidcode was to create a space for girls to play with code in their free time," says Diracles, who graduated from New York University’s Interactive Technology Program last year. "It's hard to compete in the industry if you're not doing it as a hobby."
Vidcode joins the recent explosion of toys, games, and extracurricular programs designed to encourage young girls to explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with the same fervor that they have traditionally reserved for princesses, ponies, and tea parties. Conscientious parents can now buy Lottie Dolls for their preschoolers, GoldieBlox for their 5- to 9-year-olds, and Girls Who Code summer camps for their teens.
But if Vidcode shares a similar long-term vision to increase the percentage of women working in STEM-related fields, the startup takes a more subtle, non-exclusionary approach to achieving it. Vidcode’s on-boarding and architecture reflect a nuanced understanding of how girls ages 11-18 learn and socialize, but the interface itself is largely gender-neutral, save the pixel-inspired heart logo. "We’ve designed for girls, but it's well-received by boys as well," Diracles says. That careful balance has allowed Vidcode to partner with teachers at co-ed as well as all-girls schools.
Annelie Berner, who teaches a course on data visualization at Marymount, a Catholic day school for girls in uptown Manhattan, invited the cofounders to demo Vidcode for her students last spring. During class, there was "lots of giggling, chatter, laughter. That was a pleasure to see," she says. "To me it’s really important that the girls learn in the context of a community of coders. My students are excited to get ‘under the hood,’ but they’re still a little bit scared. A lot of times with programming, it can be a bit heads down with frustration, trying and trying and not succeeding. The nice thing about Vidcode is that the experience is so immediate. You might have frustrations along the way, but it has a lightness to it—you’re not going to break anything."
Indeed, I feel none of the intimidation that other "learn to code" sites project when I first open Vidcode. Within minutes I’m happily applying blue-tinted fader effects to a sample video of a pink flower closing its petals, and then further distorting the original video with blur and noise. From within my browser I drag-and-drop the line of code associated with each effect into my code editor, and then adjust the strength of the effect by changing its assigned value. When I take "noise" from 1 to 10, and then to 100, I immediately see how the value affects the flower video. After I finish and name my video, I can share my work on Facebook with just one click.
Adding to the challenge: Computer science education is undergoing a transformation of its own, with high schools preparing for the introduction of the College Board's newest AP course, Computer Science Principles, in 2016. The old CS AP course will continue to focus on programming; CS Principles, in contrast, will expose students to "big ideas" that fall under the banner of computational thinking, including abstractions, algorithms, and problem-solving. The new course could be a boon for Vidcode—insofar as it encourages teachers to experiment with new, non-traditional curricula—or it could be an ominous development for startups focused on teaching code.
The goal is to "give students a sense of the potential array of applications and careers in computing," says Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president. In the U.S., a mere 2.4% of bachelor’s degrees go to computer science majors, and only a quarter of those majors are women.
With numbers like those, it's no wonder that technology executives are hungry for female talent. "More than half of our users on Tumblr are women, yet it's hard to find women who want to build these platforms," Tumblr founder David Karp told an audience of ambitious high school students at a Microsoft-sponsored opportunity fair in May.
In a hall outside the auditorium, Sara Solano seemed to have got the message. She had just graduated from Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics, a public school for recent immigrants where nearly nine in 10 students are English Language Learners, or ELLs. In the fall, she would be entering Brown University, where she planned to major in computer science while also studying art and painting. "Creating something new that people can relate to, that people can use, is really inspiring," she says.
Solano, blessed with poise beyond her years, is the rare example of a teenage girl who charted her own path toward creative coding. If Vidcode succeeds, many others may soon follow in her footsteps.