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Midwinter field trip to Cobb County libraries

After four days of productive committee meetings and sessions at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, the opportunity to see real libraries in action was a welcome change of scenery. Monday afternoon Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) staff (plus me) were given a tour of several libraries in the Cobb County Public Library System (CCPLS) hosted by a CCPLS branch manager (and longtime OITP Advisory Committee member) Pat Ball and CCPLS Director Helen Poyer.

Alan with virtual reality headgear and monitor in background
OITP Director Alan Inouye tries out the VR equipment with User Engagement Manager Brazos Price; Photo credit: Tom Brooks for Cobb County Public Library System

The 17 branches of the CCPLS offer a gamut of services. Staff at the county’s main location, Switzer Library, enthusiastically described programs ranging from job skills training (in partnership with the local Jewish Family Services) to virtual reality technology (thanks to an IMLS grant) to falls prevention workshops for older adults (in collaboration with Wellstar Health System). A month of daily blog posts wouldn’t suffice to recount the many ways that CCPLS successfully engages other organizations to serve the needs of people in their communities. But the CCPL program that captured my attention the most, was their “Girls Who Code” club.

Over the past year OITP has been working to promote coding and other programs designed to foster computational thinking in youth, particularly through the Libraries Ready to Code project. More than half of OITP’s sessions at ALA Midwinter were related to coding. Lucky for us, CCPL’s “Girls Who Code” meet every Monday evening, so we had a chance to meet some of them as they worked on their original project. As Stratton Library volunteer Ambrey McWilliams explained to us, the girls started by brainstorming issues of concern in their community and then came up with a way to build awareness of one issue through a coding project.

The issue they chose: texting while driving. The tool: a game hosted on an original website that requires players to resist various distractions while “driving.”

As we chatted with the girls, several aspects of the project struck me:

three girls facing computer screens, where they are coding
Several members of Stratton Library’s “Girls Who Code” club
  1. The girls involved range in age from 12 to 17 and come from public, private and home schools. One girl – a home-schooler – traveled an hour each way to be part of this diverse group because it was the coding club closest to her home. Through coding (and eating pizza) together, a sense of community is forming amongst these girls leaning over each other’s computer screens.
  2. Their project emerged from a genuine conversation among this diverse group of girls about the needs they identified in the wider community. Theirs is a mission-driven endeavor. (In addition to the issue of texting while driving, they had considered problems like bus safety and animal treatment.)
  3. The many phases of the project (building the website, creating a PSA, designing characters, writing distractors) require teamwork and scaffolding, so having a committed volunteer to help guide the project is key. Stratton’s “Girls Who Code” are fortunate to have a volunteer that codes professionally and also has the skills to break down the task into manageable parts and facilitate the group’s discovering solutions to challenges of completing the task – which is a key element of computational thinking.

Thanks to the dedicated professionals at Stratton Library and the county that funds their innovative programs, these girls are learning skills that will serve them well in their future careers – not only in tech, but in any profession. As a recent OITP report states, as libraries get ready to code, “communities will see young people who are ready to take on their futures, who have robust career options, and who guarantee the economic and social vitality of the cities, towns and reservations in which they live.”

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Shawnda Hines

Shawnda Hines is an assistant director of Communications at ALA's Washington Office. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Evangel University in Missouri. Before joining the ALA in 2016, Shawnda worked as press secretary and local media organizer for the national advocacy group Bread for the World.

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