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No boys allowed: Girls Who Code takes on gender gap

Each morning this summer, Jazmine Fernandez hopped the subway to downtown Oakland and boarded a shuttle bus bound for Silicon Valley.

The youngest of four raised by a single mom who works at Burger King, Fernandez, 18, is a high school senior growing up in the hulking shadow of the Oakland Coliseum.

She likes to study mechanical engineering and build robots in school. A couple of friends suggested she apply for Girls Who Code. The non-profit is part of a nascent but growing movement to close the gender gap in the technology industry.

Fernandez had never known any software engineers. She wasn't even sure Mexican Americans could get jobs with big technology companies.

"I thought I wasn't smart enough. I thought I couldn't do it," she said.

Turns out she could.

One of 20 teens to spend seven weeks on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif.​, with Girls Who Code, Fernandez got a crash course in computer science. She went on field trips to top tech companies. And she attended workshops run by leading female engineers and entrepreneurs.

Fernandez says her self-doubt melted away when she met Raquel Vélez, who is a senior software developer at npm Inc., an open-source software company.

For the first time Fernandez says she can picture herself working for a company like Facebook.

"Now I can really say that I can do this," Fernandez said.

That's the whole idea.

This summer at Facebook, Fernandez worked with a team to build a fun educational app, Wacky Words, to help students learn SAT words. Players are quizzed on multiple-choice questions in 60-second rounds so they can test themselves without SAT books or flashcards.

"Whether it's clean water or obesity, these girls see a problem they are facing or that their family is facing and they try to solve it," Saujani said.

Like many of the girls in the summer program, Samantha Baker, 16, a high school senior from Burlingame, Calif., delighted in the free gourmet meals in Facebook cafes, the friendly engineers who acted as mentors and the wide array of fun activities.

She says she was surprised to learn that tech workers don't spend long solitary hours pounding on keyboards in darkened rooms.

"This opened the door to show me what it's really like to work in tech," Samantha said.

Briana Sidney, 16, is a senior at Oakland High School. She has been playing video games since she was 4 and owns nearly every gaming console.

Briana had never coded before. Over the course of the summer, she says she developed skills and confidence — and she got a leg up in her dream to go to college to study computer animation and design.

Her goal: to become a video game designer for Naughty Dog, the Santa Monica, Calif., company that makes The Last Of Us, one of her favorite games.

While exploring the Facebook campus, Sidney discovered an arcade with pinball machines, video games and a statue of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft.

"This is amazing," she said.

Source: http://www.usatoday.com/