This Startup Uses the MIT App Inventor to Teach Girls Coding

Students learn computer science while designing and building apps

5 min read

young girls and an older woman in a classroom setting with computers

Paula Ferguson, a Code Girls United volunteer, oversees a student building a mobile app using the MIT App Inventor, a block-based visual programming language.

Code Girls United

When Marianne Smith was teaching computer science in 2016 at Flathead Valley Community College, in Kalispell, Mont., the adjunct professor noticed the female students in her class were severely outnumbered, she says.

Smith says she believed the disparity was because girls were not being introduced to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in elementary and middle school.

Code Girls United




Kalispell, Mont.



In 2017 she decided to do something to close the gap. The IEEE member started an after-school program to teach coding and computer science.

What began as a class of 28 students held in a local restaurant is now a statewide program run by Code Girls United, a nonprofit Smith founded in 2018. The organization has taught more than 1,000 elementary, middle, and high school students across 38 cities in Montana and three of the state’s Native American reservations. Smith has plans to expand the nonprofit to South Dakota, Wisconsin, and other states, as well as other reservations.

“Computer science is not a K–12 requirement in Montana,” Smith says. “Our program creates this rare hands-on experience that provides students with an experience that’s very empowering for girls in our community.”

The nonprofit was one of seven winners last year of MIT Solve’s Gender Equity in STEM Challenge. The initiative supports organizations that work to address gender barriers. Code Girls United received US $100,000 to use toward its program.

“The MIT Solve Gender Equity in STEM Challenge thoroughly vets all applicants—their theories, practices, organizational health, and impact,” Smith says. “For Code Girls United to be chosen as a winner of the contest is a validating honor.”

From a restaurant basement to statewide programs

When Smith had taught her sons how to program robots, she found that programming introduced a set of logic and communication skills similar to learning a new language, she says.

Those skills were what many girls were missing, she reasoned.

“It’s critical that girls be given the opportunity to speak and write in this coding language,” she says, “so they could also have the chance to communicate their ideas.”

An app to track police vehicles

Last year Code Girls United’s advanced class held in Kalispell received a special request from Jordan Venezio, the city’s police chief. He asked the class to create an app to help the Police Department manage its vehicle fleet.

The department was tracking the location of its police cars on paper, a process that made it challenging to get up-to-date information about which cars were on patrol, available for use, or being repaired, Venezio told the Flathead Beacon.

The objective was to streamline day-to-day vehicle operations. To learn how the department operates and see firsthand the difficulties administrators faced when managing the vehicles, two students shadowed officers for 10 weeks.

The students programmed the app using Visual Studio Code, React Native, Expo Go, and GitHub.

The department’s administrators now more easily can see each vehicle’s availability, whether it’s at the repair shop, or if it has been retired from duty.

“It’s a great privilege for the girls to be able to apply the skills they’ve learned in the Code Girls United program to do something like this for the community,” Smith says. “It really brings our vision full circle.”

At first she wasn’t sure what subjects to teach, she says, reasoning that Java and other programming languages were too advanced for elementary school students.

She came across MIT App Inventor, a block-based visual programming language for creating mobile apps for Android and iOS devices. Instead of learning a coding language by typing it, students drag and drop jigsaw puzzle–like pieces that contain code to issue instructions. She incorporated building an app with general computer science concepts such as conditionals, logic flow, and variables. With each concept learned, the students built a more difficult app.

“It was perfect,” she says, “because the girls could make an app and test it the same day. It’s also very visual.”

Once she had a curriculum, she wanted to find willing students, so she placed an advertisement in the local newspaper. Twenty-eight girls signed up for the weekly classes, which were held in a diner. Assisting Smith were Beth Schecher, a retired technical professional; and Liz Bernau, a newly graduated elementary school teacher who taught technology classes. Students had to supply their own laptop.

At the end of the first 18 weeks, the class was tasked with creating apps to enter in the annual Technovation Girls competition. The contest seeks out apps that address issues including animal abandonment, safely reporting domestic violence, and access to mental health services.

The first group of students created several apps to enter in the competition, including ones that connected users to water-filling stations, provided people with information about food banks, and allowed users to report potholes. The group made it to the competition’s semifinals.

The coding program soon outgrew the diner and moved to a computer lab in a nearby elementary school. From there classes were held at Flathead Valley Community College. The program continued to grow and soon expanded to schools in other Montana towns including Belgrade, Havre, Joliet, and Polson.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the program to become virtual—which was “oddly fortuitous,” Smith says. After she made the curriculum available for anyone to use via Google Classroom, it increased in popularity.

That’s when she decided to launch her nonprofit. With that came a new curriculum.

young girls sitting at a large desk with computers and keyboards in front of them, the girl closest wearing a bright yellow shirtWhat began as a class of 28 students held in a restaurant in Kalispell, Mont., has grown into a statewide program run by Code Girls United. The nonprofit has taught coding and computer science to more than 1,000 elementary, middle, and high school students. Code Girls United

Program expands across the state

Beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes were introduced. Instructors of the weekly after-school program are volunteers and teachers trained by Smith or one of the organization’s 10 employees. The teachers are paid a stipend.

For the first half of the school year, students in the beginner class learn computer science while creating apps.

“By having them design and build a mobile app,” Smith says, “I and the other teachers teach them computer science concepts in a fun and interactive way.”

Once students master the course, they move on to the intermediate and advanced levels, where they are taught lessons in computer science and learn more complicated programming concepts such as Java and Python.

“It’s important to give girls who live on the reservations educational opportunities to close the gap. It’s the right thing to do for the next generation.”

During the second half of the year, the intermediate and advanced classes participate in Code Girls United’s App Challenge. The girls form teams and choose a problem in their community to tackle. Next they write a business plan that includes devising a marketing strategy, designing a logo, and preparing a presentation. A panel of volunteer judges evaluates their work, and the top six teams receive a scholarship of up to $5,000, which is split among the members.

The organization has given out more than 55 scholarships, Smith says.

“Some of the girls who participated in our first education program are now going to college,” she says. “Seventy-two percent of participants are pursuing a degree in a STEM field, and quite a few are pursuing computer science.”

Introducing coding to Native Americans

The program is taught to high school girls on Montana’s Native American reservations through workshops.

Many reservations lack access to technology resources, Smith says, so presenting the program there has been challenging. But the organization has had some success and is working with the Blackfeet reservation, the Salish and Kootenai tribes on the Flathead reservation, and the Nakota and Gros Ventre tribes at Fort Belknap.

The workshops tailor technology for Native American culture. In the newest course, students program a string of LEDs to respond to the drumbeat of tribal songs using the BBC’s Micro:bit programmable controller. The lights are attached to the bottom of a ribbon skirt, a traditional garment worn by young women. Colorful ribbons are sewn horizontally across the bottom, with each hue having a meaning.

The new course was introduced to students on the Flathead reservation this month.

“Montana’s reservations are some of the most remote and resource-limited communities,” Smith says, “especially in regards to technology and educational opportunities.

“It’s important to give girls who live on the reservations educational opportunities to close the gap. It’s the right thing to do for the next generation.”

The Conversation (0)