When I was in middle school, I was sporting some fresh braces and listening to wayyyy too much Savage Garden. If there’d been a championship for having the most cowlicks in your bangs, I would have taken home the gold. Meanwhile, I would secretly stay up late on school nights – at risk of getting grounded – just so I could teach myself how to code websites. It was the mid-90s in small town Kentucky and I didn’t know of any computer coding classes for people my age. I most definitely did not know any other girls who were interested in coding.

Those experiences shifted my mindset and have stayed with me throughout my life. I still remember the moment I decided that, if I ever found a way to make a career in the tech industry, I’d also find a way to mentor other young girls who were interested in doing the same. That’s why it’s been such an honor and a privilege to do spend the month of April teaching web design and entrepreneurship classes for middle school girls at two different schools in Lexington — including Tates Creek Middle School, the very same school that I was attending when I started teaching myself to code in 7th and 8th grade.

As part of the Lt. Governor’s STEM Challenge for Girls, I partnered with the Kentucky Commission on Women to develop and facilitate custom curriculum for 7th and 8th grade girls throughout Central Kentucky. Thanks to a generous sponsorship from Verizon Wireless, the program was able to expand this year to include multiple schools throughout the cities of Lexington and Louisville.

website designed by 8th grade student at Leestown Middle School in Lexington Kentucky
A website designed by an 8th grade girl at Leestown Middle School in Lexington, KY

While I was initially approached to teach a video game development course, we ended up deciding upon something even bigger. I created a custom curriculum that asked the girls to explore what they think their life’s purpose is in this world. We went a step further, discussing the issues facing our world and our community. As our final project for this course, we challenged the girls to develop and hand-code a website for their very own business, nonprofit, charity, or philanthropic endeavor.

Adolescence is hard on girls. Studies have shown us that most girls experience a plummet in self-esteem during middle school and high school. Researchers also now realize that children form their impressions, whether positive or negative, of STEM and other topics by the time they are teenagers. This means that if we wait until teens are in high school to start teaching them about these subjects, we lose them.

Our curriculum attempted to address both of those issues while helping Kentucky’s middle school girls. The goal of this course was to empower these girls with entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and tech skills; to inspire them to get involved in changing their world; and to mentor them towards the long-term goal of pursuing fulfilling, high-paying careers – or possibly even launching their own businesses and nonprofits.

Website by a 7th grader at Tates Creek Middle School in Lexington Kentucky
A website for a cause: designed by a middle school girl at Tates Creek

website code written by an 8th grader at Leestown Middle School
HTML code by an 8th grade girl at Leestown Middle School, created to address discrimination issues in our community.

As a result, we had some incredible topics presented during the beta testing phases as well as during the classes at Tates Creek and Leestown middle schools. Ideas were as broad as mental health and suicide prevention, immigration reform, reducing gun violence in America, providing food and clean drinking water to people in need, and finding cures for cancer, diabetes, and other devastating illnesses. One girl told me she plans to start a web design business that donates a portion of all proceeds to nonprofits – and builds pro bono sites for nonprofits and charities. Another girl is working on a project that will raise money (and spirits) for children who have cancer. There were girls who wanted to skip field trips to attend this class, and one girl at Tates Creek actually cried when she found out she was going to have to miss a day of class.

STEM Entrepreneurship class for girls in Kentucky

In the end, I have to say that this was an incredible experience and it was so fulfilling to give back to my hometown, especially at the very school where my love for coding began. As a middle school girl, I realized what I wanted to do for a living and I hope this has inspired some of these girls to do the same. Even if they don’t choose to go into tech or pursue STEM skills and entrepreneurship, it was my pleasure providing a level of mentoring and support for these girls that was not available to me when I was their age. This is an important program for Kentucky’s girls, for our state’s tech talent, as well as to the continued growth and innovation for our economy. I sincerely hope that it will continue for years to come.