The group of high school girls sat before a potted plant with wires running down the sides. India Bhalla-Ladd, 15, fiddled with a button on the broadboard, a pegboard for electronic devices. With each press, a different plant type appeared on a black-and-white screen — veggie, flower and the one she eventually landed on: succulent.
That morning, in a Georgetown University classroom, the toggling device for their project was acting up. They had to troubleshoot a plant.
“We find if you’re missing a semicolon or a comma, the whole thing won’t work,” said India, a junior at National Cathedral School, referring to the code for their plant-managing device, Plantech.
The concept is simple, and genius, really: If your plant needs watering, Plantech will alert you. It works the same way for temperature and sunlight. An LED indicator flashes on, telling you that the plant requires your attention. Eventually, the girls hope it will make watering house plants as simple as sending a text message.
“Every person has, at one point, forgotten to water their plant,” said 17-year-old Sara Berrios, a senior at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va.
The group’s idea sprouted from a seven-week Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, a camp that aims to combat stereotypes about computer coders and encourage high school girls to pursue computer science education. During July and August, about 60 students attended the camp, sponsored by BSA (the Software Alliance), Lockheed Martin and the university. Girls Who Code, a nonprofit group, seeks to increase the number of women in technology .
In 1984, women represented 37 percent of computer science graduates, according to Girls Who Code. Today, women make up just 18 percent of those grads.
By 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings, but U.S. universities are expected to produce enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of those openings, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Girls Who Code aims to provide computer science education to at least a million young women by 2020.
Instead of lazing away the summer with friends or on the couch in front of a television, dozens of girls gathered at Georgetown with a shared goal: Solve an everyday problem with coding.
The girls used computing languages to produce a set of actions that work in concert, and a glimpse into Tom Gutnick’s classroom on a sunny August morning provided strong examples of what that can create.
“I don’t know how this classroom strikes you,” he said. “It’s chaotic. You look around and you see all the great learning going around, and that’s what it’s all about.”
As button pressing occurred at one end of the classroom — part of a video game in which where a kayak navigates streams while cleaning up oil spills — another group worked out kinks on a Web site that matches people to their ideal pet and guides them to a shelter where they can find it.
Li-Ting Song, 16, and Milena Orbach, 17, were putting the final touches on an app that finds restaurants for people with dietary restrictions. Song, who used to be a vegetarian, said she arrived at the idea when she remembered the hassle of finding places to eat with her friends in middle school.
“We would always have to roam around looking for something, and they would get annoyed,” said Song, a student at West Springfield High School in Virginia. The app includes options such as halal, kosher, vegan, vegetarian and paleo.
Taiylor Waysome, 17, and Devin McCoy, 15, were tinkering with a project catered to another demographic. Their Web site, Curl Kind, aims to help their curly-hair cohorts take care of sometimes hard-to-manage locks. It was inspired by Waysome’s own experiences “messing up” her hair, she said.
“I don’t want other people to have to go through that,” said Waysome, a student at Hylton High School in Prince William County.
But their message goes beyond hair, extending deep into the roots of human relationships, the girls said.
“If you don’t see someone who looks like you, you tend to think it’s wrong,” said McCoy, a student at Montgomery County’s Albert Einstein High School. “It’s the same thing with hair. We want people to grow up feeling good about themselves and their hair.”
The girls have a variety of reasons for pursuing coding. Some said it’s the job prospects; for others, it’s a love of video games and technology. But many said coding is simply empowering.
Victoria A. Espinel, chief executive of sponsor BSA, said the mission struck a personal chord with her as the head of a software advocacy group. The world needs more female coders, Espinel said.
“I think if there’s a significant portion of the population that is discouraged from going into an industry, then, by definition, you are losing a significant chunk of talent,” Espinel said. “There’s a huge population of smart people that are not going into coding, and we need to have them going into coding.”
Aditi Sundararaman, 15, laughed about the origins of her interest in coding. She used her knowledge of computers to navigate complex parental content locks when she was around 12 years old. Her parents took away her access to iPod Touch apps such as the App Store and the Safari Web browser, so she dug through some files and found a trail of information that led her to the password, she said.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been dissatisfied with how things work on my computer,” said Sundararaman, a student at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. So she pursued coding.
Back at Plantech HQ, the girls sat in suspense as Stephanie Villanueva, 17, of Woodbridge, Va., clutched a plastic bottle and poured water over their plant. The water seeped into the soil, and the electronic indicators briefly went haywire.
And then, for a moment, they went dead. But it was a good sign: The light and moisture levels were optimal.
The plant might be a little cold, the girls said when an LED light started flashing pink. When your plant is hooked up to a complex set of wires, and watering it induces a light show, it’s hard not to get carried away.