Sisters of Code: Cambodia’s first female coding club

When Natalja Rodionova moved to Cambodia to begin working for IT Academy STEP, she immediately noticed a problem. In a 20-person software development course, there were only 3 women. In response, she got started on what would become Cambodia’s first all-female coding club, Sisters of Code.

According to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport, only 8% of students who study CS in the country are female. Established in 2019, Sisters of Code provides an environment where young women can learn directly from other female instructors, encourage each other, and share in their achievements.

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Sisters of Code instructors using to demonstrate visual coding to students. Photo provided by Sisters of Code

With a focus on students ages 10–18, Sisters of Code facilitates an 18-week program divided into three modules. Module 1 spans six weeks and uses to teach students the principles of computer science and visual coding. Module 2 builds on this by introducing Scratch and teaching participants to build their own computer games. Lastly, Module 3 closes out the program with a deep dive into HTML and CSS, which students will use to develop their own websites.

Fast forward to 2020, Sisters of Code has gained more than 140 members and over 4,000 followers on Facebook. More importantly, 96% of Sisters of Code’s members believe that coding will be important for them in the future. Given that the program is free, it also provides students who may have limited financial resources with the opportunity to gain skills that can open up new opportunities for them and their families.

Opening New Possibilities to Young Women

By centering on young women, the club provides support and new learning just as they’re beginning to think about their career paths. This is particularly important as U.S. research shows that girls are just as interested in computer science as their male counterparts, but are less encouraged to pursue the topic beginning around age 12.

In addition to women being deterred from learning computer science, Rodionova said that, “…generally girls have less access to education than boys, due to social and cultural reasons” even though quality education may be key to the sustainable development of Cambodia.

When Sisters of Code surveyed their members, they found that the biggest hurdle these young women faced was a lack of support — an issue girls and women across the globe encounter. Almost 50 percent of its members said that they were not supported in their CS studies and 18% said they were not even allowed to study the subject. Given this insight, Sisters of Code is not only expanding the technical skills of its members, but growing their confidence as well.

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Photo provided by Sisters of Code

Making Learning Fun

As Sisters of Code expands, it will continue to challenge misconceptions about computer science, including the idea that it is “hard and boring,” Radionova said.

That is why we start our program with resources: These are fun, easy to follow, very engaging, and ensure consistent progress,” she said. “Our first module over 6 weeks is based on resources. Girls love it! And teachers are very happy too.

In Cambodia, there aren’t many schools that are able to provide both a computer lab and educators ready to teach computer science. Because these classes aren’t available to most students, extra-curricular education programs are all the more important for growing their skills and providing opportunities. So, getting students to attend lessons outside of school means ensuring that they’re both fun and engaging.

“Being an educator, I think is what an educational program should look like: self-paced, fun environment, gamification, interactive options and great content,” said Radionova.

A Warm Reception from Students and Adults Alike

While Rodionova knew there was a need for a female-centered organization focused on computer science, the demand outweighed even her expectations. When membership applications first opened, Sisters of Code received 5x more submissions than they had spots available. Considering that meetings take place outside of school and more specifically, through 18 consecutive weekends, the dedication of these students is impressive.

“We were so motivated to see so many girls curious about learning coding and serious about mastering their skills.” — Natalja Rodionova, Founder of Sisters of Code

These efforts have led to recognition at the government level as well. In 2019, the Cambodian Minister of Education, Youth and Sport visited a Sisters of Code lesson and met its members. Since that visit, the Ministry has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to further expand Sisters of Code into Cambodia’s school system. Sisters of Code has also recently partnered with the Australian government to launch free weekly video tutorials that teach coding.

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“It was a very proud moment to see one of our Sisters teaching the Minister coding while using Many of our Sisters did not have any experience with CS beforehand, and it is a real pleasure to observe their progress.” -Natalja Rodionova, Founder of Sisters of Code. Photo provided by Sisters of Code

In the short time since its launch, Sister of Code has been able to partner with government agencies, inspire young women to think about careers in computer science, and even motivate parents to become more supportive and proud of their daughters’ accomplishments.

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Photo provided by Sisters of Code

The organization has one clear goal for the future: reach as many female students as possible. With the amazing progress this program has been able to make in one year alone, is proud to be a part of their efforts.

You can learn more about Sisters of Code by visiting their website or following them on Facebook.

Mariah Acuff,® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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