Teach a girl to code, and she will change the world

Feb. 17, 2022

New coding club is changing lives in Belize

Education is for all. Students around the world have become starved for instruction, and the Michigan State University College of Engineering plans on accepting the challenge in providing guidance to those in need.

It's not all coding work for the student mentors - there's time for MSU hockey, too.
It's not all coding work for the student mentors - there's time for fun group events like MSU hockey, too.

MSU x Pathlight Coding Clubs, a partnership between the College of Engineering and Pathlight International, offer computing instruction with the goal of inclusivity. Focused on girls and economically disadvantaged youth living in Belize in grades 9-12, the program creates opportunity for and an awareness of the rewards of a proper education, hoping to diversify the world of computing. The Spring 2022 seven-week, twice-weekly program runs through Feb. 26 for about 50 participants.

“To succeed in tomorrow's world, one will increasingly need strong computational skills. Yet under resourced communities in Belize do not consider secondary education to be a high priority for investment of scarce funds,” said Laura Dillon, professor-emeritus of computer science and engineering. “MSU near-peer mentors are changing that perception at a formative stage of our club members' development. The MSU x Pathlight experience is literally changing lives!”

Teresa VanderSloot, director in Women in Engineering, Recruitment and K-12 Outreach at MSU Engineering, provides leadership and support in the success of the program.

“This is a promising model for international outreach,” she said, “and a strong opportunity for cultural exchange and mentoring.”

MSU engineering students have the opportunity to get involved as a mentor to Belizean secondary school-participants through this empowering learning experience. After Pathlight partners shared out a single flyer, the program had more than 200 students sign up to enroll.

"I love being able to make a real impact." - Gigi Padalec
"I love being able to make a real impact." - Gigi Padalec

By practicing teaching skills and cross-cultural communication, MSU students are building confidence and reinforcing their own desire and motivation in computing, Dillon noted.

A fun anecdote from an early meeting: Upon hearing a rooster crow coming from a coder’s audio feed, one MSU mentor commented on the coder's fun “ring tone” and was surprised to learn that the majority of participants raised chickens.

“It’s so amazing to make connections with these students from Belize,” said student mentor Gigi Padalec, a senior in computer science. “I love being able to make a real impact and show them how fun programming can be.” 

MSU student mentors are planning to travel to Belize May 14-20 to meet coders in-person and coach them in presenting their work for an audience. They will also seek to build support among Belizean IT companies to help sustain the program longer term.

This cross-cultural exchange meshes with MSU’s mandate to broaden student experiences beyond euro-centric countries.

Student mentor Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald is one of the Spartan student leaders.

“Our Belizean students are excited. This club has truly sparked an interest in the science fields for many of the girls who are participating,” said Consuelo Godfrey, director of teacher training at Pathlight International. “PathLight is pleased to partner with MSU on this initiative. This is such an opportunity for our Belizean students!”

This unique outreach program was made possible this spring by generous donations from the IEEE Computer Society, the ACM Special Interest Group in Software Engineering, and a private donor.

MSU x Pathlight Coding Clubs are part of the Spartan Coding Clubs (SPARCC) program run jointly by the Women in Engineering, Recruitment, Civic Engagement and K-12 Outreach, and the MSU Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

MSU mentors plan to travel in May to Belize, home of the Big Blue Hole.
Coding club mentors plan to travel to Belize, home of the Big Blue Hole.

Originally beginning with one-day coding and tech workshops, SPARCC has flourished into an extensive program offered throughout the year, both in-person and remotely. This spring alone, SPARCC is offering four local clubs in addition to the three clubs in Belize. In the coming year, it plans to expand its offerings with programs in Turkey and Mexico, and with the Detroit Public School Community District.

Click here to learn how you can donate to SPARCC programs.

Written by Kee-Ri Burkitt, student writer for the MSU College of Engineering.