Computers in a quiet cafeteria
All the laptops, ready for the hacking to begin.

If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would soon spend a Saturday morning leading young women through a set of coding exercises, I would have called you crazy. And I’m not talking young women as in high schoolers; I mean young women as in girls. Mostly middle-school-aged girls.

Now, it’s not because I don’t see the value in teaching girls to code, because I absolutely do, but this is not my typical audience. In fact, I interact with exactly zero kids on a daily basis. So the idea of distilling my content down to not only a beginner level, but a kid level, is just plain crazy. Have they done any sort of programming before? Do they know what machine learning is? Have they heard of Watson? Do they know how to cut and paste with keyboard shortcuts? Are they even remotely interested in being here?

Anxiety-provoking questions in tow, I was thrust into a small team (read: two people) trying to figure out a technical enough set of activities to not scare these young women away from coding forever. This challenge was all part of an entire Enrichment Conference put on by the PowHERful Foundation. Talk about the weight of the world.

PowHERful Enrichment Conference Agenda
The agenda, including the Cognitive Challenge: three hours where 100 girls get technical.

This is where we found out we should expect about 100+ girls using 64 laptops. Is it just me, or is the world getting even heavier on my shoulders?

Enter Node-RED. The drag-n-drop graphical interface gives you the ability to build powerful apps with a variety of different integrations with mostly config. Coding without coding! Maybe some of the girls have even been exposed to Scratch. We can run it locally or in the IBM Cloud with the Node-RED starter app. We get Watson services, databases, and other functions with a few clicks. This may just work!

Me, explaining sentiment analysis.
Me, explaining Node-RED.

The lab consisted of consuming an RSS feed from CNN, evaluating the sentiment with Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU), and displaying it in a nice UI powered by D3.js. Nothing was stubbed, so it was heavily reliant on the RSS feed, IBM Cloud, and network infrastructure all playing nice with each other. Please work!

A team at work in Node-RED
A team at work in Node-RED.

The great thing about working with kids is that they are curious and mostly tolerant of some small hiccups here and there without asking too many questions. This is the first time we had done something of this scale for an audience of non-developer kids so it wasn’t always smooth sailing. But kids are great at shrugging it off: “Computers are like that sometimes!”

A hundred young women and girls hacking away.

At the end of the three hours I was tired, sweaty, and overjoyed at the fact that some teams were making it through the exercises. Some even joyously declared they felt more confident at computing. They didn’t think they could code, they thought it was too hard, but here they were staring at a bubble-filled UI showing them NLU-scored news from an RSS feed. It worked!

Cognitive Challenge Leaders and Mentors
A small portion of the execution team. And me with my hair now up because I’ve been running around for three hours.

Ten hours of frantic laptop setup and crawling under cafeteria tables the day before seemed so worth it in the end. We gave a hundred girls a positive interaction with computers and programming at IBM that I hope they remember whenever STEM starts to feel too hard. And I got introduced as “the real developer.” Hits me right in the feels.


This post is also available on Medium as PowHERful Challenges my Advocate Skills. Check out IBM’s developer advocacy effort here at IBM Code for our latest code patterns, engage with our Developer Advocacy team to create new skills in your organization, or find an event near you.

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