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Do Good: BitCamp provides hands-on tech experience for middle school girls

Shawn Crowley

With support from Atomic Object, Software GR is hosting a unique, one-day, hands-on tech experience for middle school girls. Stephanie Doublestein finds out what BitCamp is all about and why Grand Rapids is lucky it's happening here.
Consider the statistics: Only 15 percent of female college freshmen go into STEM fields, and only .4 percent enter computer science fields as opposed to three percent of men. And while some believe these numbers may be caused by stereotypes that steer women away from science and technology fields, others believe that women simply aren't being exposed to the right opportunities at young ages. That's why Shawn Crowley is proud to be a part of BitCamp, an experience that aims to change that, one day at a time, for local girls.
Crowley, a managing partner at Atomic Object's Grand Rapids office, was a part of the first BitCamp that Atomic Object put on in March of 2006 with company president and co-founder Carl Erickson. Crowley, Erickson and others at the software development company saw a lack of women in tech-based university classes and in their hiring pipeline, says Crowley. "We thought, why don't we provide an experience where some junior high girls can have a hands-on introduction to coding. We wanted it to be free, fun, small group, learning by doing and we wanted to make it so previous experience wasn't necessary."
Though the first class was fun and successful, the concept fell by the wayside until it was revived by Atomic Object's Detroit office in 2012, when they brought the curriculum back to life and partnered with the Detroit chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that helps women in the workplace develop technology skills. "With Girl Develop It, [we] have successful women teaching the class," says Crowley.
The partnership also allowed Atomic Object to begin to hand over the reins to other organizations. "We're happy to provide funds and space and environment," says Crowley. "It's great for these young women to see what it's like to work in a creative tech environment. They can project what it would be like to work in this kind of place."
Back in Grand Rapids, Atomic Object has begun a new phase of collaboration as well, handing over the organization of the event to Software GR, a 501c6 nonprofit dedicated to building and supporting the software community in West Michigan. The next local BitCamp, to be held Feb. 22, will engage 7th and 8th grade girls from Grand Rapids Montessori with volunteers from Spectrum Health, Steelcase, Calvin College, and Atlas Coast as instructors.
"Atomic Object is happy to host, but what I find most exciting is that we're letting go of it and Software GR is helping grow what BitCamp Grand Rapids can be," Crowley says. "I think it's going to find deep roots and I'm glad to see it flourishing."
Software GR has refined the curriculum for the day-long event and has developed a pilot program that could potentially spread outside of West Michigan. Crowley says the BitCamp concept has resonated with likeminded technology companies across the country. He also says Atomic Object is open to creating other tech-based opportunities for students of all ages in West Michigan, including after-school coding clubs.
"There's a benefit in hitting students at an early age to grow the richness of the profession within the region," Crowley says. "What's interesting about West Michigan is we have the density and leadership and vision to be doing something like this."
Crowley points to the special blend of competition and collaboration between local tech companies as one factor that makes this area the right place to raise the next generation of developers: "In Grand Rapids I get a strong sense that there are strong leaders who want to compete in a fair way and see all boats rise together."
At Atomic Object, Crowley says, "What we see is that software product development is about creating innovative solutions, and when you're building products you need a diversity of perspectives. Having more people at the table allows you to create more solutions."
It's why a group of tech-savvy volunteers will gather with a group of curious Grand Rapids Montessori middle school girls for BitCamp this Saturday at Atomic Object's Grand Rapids office. They hope to encourage more young minds to come to the table, and to encourage more girls to consider a future that includes designing smart solutions.
After the Feb. 22 event, Software GR will discuss how to scale – and possibly replicate – BitCamp. And just in time, because Crowley cites a recent US News and World Report job ranking that has tech jobs bumping out health care as the fastest-growing occupation. "For the kids coming through this year, it's really interesting. If we're projecting a swell of need for software developers in 2022, that's great timing."

For more information on BitCamp Grand Rapids, contact john.rumery@softwaregr.org.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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