Bridging the Gender Gap

La Serna High Student Inspires Launch of STEM Classes


A girl who knows how to code can change the world.

At least, that’s what Markie Wagner of Whittier, CA thinks. She’s a soon-to-be senior at La Serna High School in Whittier, and she believes all girls should try their hand at computer science. Her efforts and enthusiasm have inspired her school to launch two new STEM classes in the fall — Intro to Engineering and Advanced Placement Computer Science.

“That was very exciting to hear,” said Wagner, who recently finished a computer coding immersion program at UCLA. Last summer, she participated in an eight-week program offered by Girls Who Code, a nationally respected nonprofit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology education and the industry.

“It’s important for girls to get into computer science because there are so many boys in computer science,” said Wagner, 16. She turns 17 Aug. 1. “Right now, we’re getting ideas and technology from half the population. There are so many ideas, so many different perspectives that girls can come up with that boys didn’t think of.”

Wagner’s passion for computers and how they work started early. As a 9-year-old, she loved playing Club Penguin, a massively multiplayer online game created by New Horizon Interactive (now known as Walt Disney Online Studios Canada) where the player can make his or her own little penguin avatar, explore different maps and scenarios and live in its own penguin world.

“I learned to change the way my websites looked and to use different web languages,” she said. “I learned HTML and CSS and made a website about my hamster. Then I created a site that sold eco-friendly products.”

By 13, she got into app programming. She created a free Android phone app based on the Hasbro game Catch Phrase that was downloaded 28,000 times. She didn’t know about trademarks then. But now, she’s reworking the app to comply with brand rules before making it available for iOS.

Last year, Wagner participated in a summer immersion program organized by Girls Who Code. It was at the Boyle Heights Technology YouthSource Center in Los Angeles. During the program, she learned a ton about coding and also met senior engineers at JPL, the chief technology officer at Walt Disney Studios, executives at AT&T and the mayor of Los Angeles.

“Connections are so valuable, and networking is so important,” Wagner said. “I don’t know where I’d be without Girls Who Code.”

Wagner was eager to teach children about computers after finishing the Girls Who Code program. Last September, she was invited to tutor and mentor fifth graders on coding and robotics at the 32nd Street USC Magnet Elementary School.

“There aren’t as many women role models in the tech industry,” she said. “There aren’t very many women’s names among the big names in tech. One of my life aspirations is to be one of those names. Someone whom girls can look up to. She did it, so I can do it too.”

La Serna High Principal Ann Fitzgerald was impressed with Wagner’s passion for coding and computers. She talked to Markie, who was starting a computer coding club on campus, and the two agreed that the school needed formal classes to teach all students about computers, engineering and technology.

“This became a grassroots effort, on the part of one of our students,” Fitzgerald said. “Markie is just an incredible young girl. She’s very curious. She has great energy about her. When you meet her in person, you won’t forget her.”

Fitzgerald decided to send two La Serna teachers, Laura Glass and Todd Boschman, to Cal Poly Pomona’s Project Lead the Way program to receive training so they could teach engineering and computer science. This fall at La Serna High, Glass will teach AP Computer Science Principles, and Boschman will teach Introduction to Engineering.

“Markie was that push, then we all figured this out together,” Fitzgerald said. “You don’t typically have kids who come in and design a course and help plan the way. But her enthusiasm and love for the content is contagious. She’s seen as a role model on campus, not only among kids, but for the adults as well.”

Introducing these STEM classes is vital, Fitzgerald said, since they may help pave the way toward future professions.

“No matter what field they go into, the expectation is that they have technical literacy,” the La Serna principal said. “Our students are preparing themselves for many jobs that don’t even exist yet.”

La Serna High School is now in the process of transforming its campus and curricula to meet the challenges of the digital age.

“We have multiple carts on campus, multiple platforms, Chromebook carts, a variety of different equipment,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s amazing what we’ve done in the last 10 years. 1-to-1 is our ultimate goal.” 

Wagner said a lot of girls are initially afraid of computer coding and computer science because there are so few girls involved, there are many challenging problems and sometimes “girls worry too much about being perfect.”

“Once they get started, they get over those things that make them feel nervous,” she said. “I just want girls to know that they can, they really can!”

When she’s not coding, Wagner plays water polo. She’ll be on the varsity team (the Lancers) this coming school year.

But coding is her true love. She’s putting finishing touches on her second app, called First Jobs. The app is designed to help high school and college students search for and find their first job or internship.

“It’s definitely functional right now, but I just want to tweak it to make it easier and add a few bells and whistles.” She hopes to have First Jobs on the App Store by the end of the year.

Wagner views Steve Jobs as the ultimate role model. Like the co-founder of Apple, she wants to create and run her own tech startup some day.

“I loved the (Jobs) movie (starring Ashton Kutcher), and I really love the book (by Walter Isaacson),” she said. “He said when you do something, you should throw your whole heart into something. And do something good. That’s what has been very inspiring to me.”

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].