Montana Code Girls

From left to right: Ailey Robinson, Sophia Richter, Governor Steve Bullock and Montana Code Girls co-founder Devin Holmes. 

DAVID ERICKSON david.erickson@missoulian.com

Sophia Richter and Ailey Robinson, two Hellgate High School sophomores, spent 12 weeks and countless after-school hours earlier this year developing an app called Mood Toast. It's designed to recognize depression symptoms, according to well-accepted mental health standards.

They were two of 28 young women who participated in the Montana Code Girls pilot class, which is a free, after-school technology program open to all Montana girls ages 9-19. The mission is to inspire and empower more girls to get interested in careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, known as STEM.

On Thursday, Richter and Robinson sat down with Montanan Gov. Steve Bullock and Code Girls co-founder Devin Holmes as part of Bullock’s statewide tour of education and innovation programs.

“We’re here to talk about the experiences of young women who code and why it’s so important that young women get the opportunity to code,” Richter said.

The girls designed their app as part of the Montana Technovation Challenge, which inspires students to use computer programming skills to solve real-world social problems.

“Our app contains a self-evaluating test tool,” Robinson explained. “The test was made off of the (Patient Health Questionnaire 9), which psychologists today use to evaluate patients to see if they have depression or not. We also worked with our school psychologist to make sure every question was valid and every suggestion we gave to the user of the app was backed up.”

Robinson also said that anyone who suspects they may have depression or is diagnosed can use the application as a self-test tool, thereby making it easier for someone who is hesitant to see a specialist.

“The Technovation gave us a better idea of how to code and the business aspect of creating an app,” she said.

Because of the Montana Code Girls class, both young women are now more focused on their career ambitions. Richter said she wants to pursue a career as perhaps an anesthesiologist or some other health-related career and Robinson wants to look into maybe becoming an astronomy professor.

“We strongly believe that all women should get involved with technology and coding,” Richter said. “Technology is a growing industry that is mainly dominated by the male population. And by getting young women to be interested in technology and not shying away from it, we can have positions in that growing industry. Women need to be represented in the sciences.”

The Montana Code Girls class is a partnership with the Big Sky Code Academy, which is a nonprofit organization that offers a 12-week computer programming course offered in Missoula.

Holmes founded Montana Code Girls with Doug Walter earlier this year. He announced on Thursday that the program will look to enlist as many as 150 young women across the state next year, and they can live anywhere in the state as long as they have access to a computer and the internet.

“They learn more than just coding skills,” Holmes said. “They learn the entrepreneurial plan. They learn to take video, learn to do market analysis and even how to develop a log. So it’s far more encompassing than just the coding part.”

Holmes said he was inspired by a film about the national Technovation Challenge to start one here in Montana. The nonprofit organization has community partners such as the Missoula Public Library to help them offer the program for free.

“I’m happy to announce that starting this fall Montana Code Girls is going to be a statewide program,” he said. “We have taken the Technovation Challenge curriculum and have added more components.”

Holmes said that a recent College Board report that showed that girls who take advanced placement computer science classes are 10 times more likely to study computer science in college.

“And we know that we have a gender diversity challenge in the technology sector,” Holmes said. “The more that we can do to encourage the interest in technology, the more that we can do to encourage girls to study (technology) when they go on to higher education, ultimately results in a better workforce. And that fundamentally is the purpose of Montana Code Girls.”

Bullock spent time going over the Mood Toast app with Richter and Robinson and reiterated his support for the program.

“STEM initiatives like Montana Code Girls are essential to making sure that we equip all Montana students with the skills they need to succeed in a 21st Century workforce and growing economy.”

For more information visit mtcodegirls.org.

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