Cassandra Marcussen and Michelle Woo:

From Learning to Code to Changing the World

Meet Cassandra Marcussen and Michelle Woo from Greenwich High School. They started their own Girls Who Code club and went on to create an app called “Under My Wing,” an app with features designed to help prevent sexual assault, for the Verizon App Challenge — their app won Best in State, Best in Region, and Best in the Nation. They’ve just finished up their junior year and are excited to bring their coding knowledge to other girls in the Greenwich, Connecticut area through after school programming their club will provide.

Michelle and Cassandra with Reshma Saujani (Girls Who Code CEO & Founder) and her son, Shaan

Read more about how Cassandra and Michelle are using coding to make a difference in our Q&A below:

Why get involved with Girls Who Code?

M: I’d heard about Girls Who Code from my mom, and we noticed that the normal coding club at school had a lot of boys and they weren’t really teaching beginners how to code. We found it kind of unwelcoming, so we wanted to start our own club where girls in particular would be inspired and taught to program.

C: There was definitely a problem at the school and we thought that through a code club we could effectively diminish this problem. The existing coding club was not unwelcoming per se, but it was not a place for beginners to learn how to code. Michelle and I noticed that there were not any other girls in the coding club besides us two, and so we started a Girls Who Code club at our school in order to encourage girls at our school to learn how to computer program.

M: Our world is filled with technology and computers everywhere we turn; knowing that computer programming is going to be a crucial skill in the future and the role that coding already plays in our daily lives, I really wanted to learn how to build the technology that I use every day. I have always loved STEM subjects in school, and considering the fact that I definitely want to pursue a STEM field in the future, I felt that knowing how to code would be very important.

You girls started the Club yourselves. What was that like?

M: I knew Cassandra was also interested in programming so together we went to the computer programming teacher at our school and we asked him to be our club advisor and he was really excited about it and agreed, and then after that we had to go to the teacher at the school who manages all of this and bounce the club to her, and she thought it was a great idea, then we had to advertise it at the club fair after school.

You started the Club yourselves, but didn’t have coding experience. Did you think Girls Who Code was helpful in teaching you and supporting you?

M: When we started the club, I had introductory experience with Javascript, but I feel that Girls Who Code really helped me to grow in computer science. The community of girls present in the club fostered an atmosphere of collaboration and learning. As someone who had coded before, I was one of the more experienced girls in the club. I loved how we were all able to work together to further our knowledge of and interest in computer programming.

C: Girls Who Code has provided a collaborative environment where innovation and discovery is fostered. I have learned a lot from the many different skills of the club’s members, and I hope that they have learned from me as well. The club has been useful in creating a welcoming environment for beginner programmers to learn, and it has also been a great way to meet other girls who are interested in pursuing a career in technology. Additionally, running the Girls Who Code club at Greenwich High School alongside Michelle has taught me how to be a more effective leader. Especially throughout the process of designing and creating the app Under My Wing, I learned how to better work with and lead a team, as well as how to manage projects more effectively. Also, I have learned how to lead club meetings and problem-solve to fix bugs in our code.

Your club went on to create an app that won a ton of awards- tell me about it!

M: Our app is called Under my Wing, and essentially we’re a club of girls who realize that sexual assault and other violence is a major issue in today’s world, so we decided to address the biggest issue we could think of. We entered it into the Verizon App Challenge, and all we had to do for that was think of an app concept and we basically developed our app concept and after we won we got help from an MIT trainer to build our app using MIT.

C: Our app has a lot of different features to help women and men in different situations. Some of the features are an emergency calling feature where you can call the police and text contacts of yours at the same time, and we also have self defense tutorials made by one of our members of the girls who code club as well as recording features and also this feature called the fake phone call, which allows the user to plug in a certain amount of time he or she wants someone to call them in, and once the timer goes off, it will seem as if someone is calling the person so they can avoid another situation.

Where can we find your app?

M: Right now it’s only available on the Google Play store, but over the summer and over the next year we plan to move it to iOS as well.

Why coding?

M: For me at least, I realized that coding is going to be a big thing in the future and I’ve always been interested in science and math, so I thought that naturally it would be a really good thing to learn computer programming, and now that I’ve done it a lot, I really like it because I think it’s so cool how you can just use computer language to create something of your own. I wanted to learn how to code because I love that there are endless possibilities to what you can create. I love that with computer language, I have the chance to create change in the world. It is an amazing outlet for creativity that involves logic and critical thinking.

C: I’ve also been very interested in science and math for a long time, and so Michelle approached me with this idea of starting the girls who code club and I was really interested in the idea and I think we’ve gone really far with it. I think Computer programming has a lot of power in today’s world to create change, so I really like that aspect of it, because it’s really one of the best ways to create actual change and influence lots of people’s lives.

Why should other girls learn to code?

M: One aspect of coding that especially interests me — and should interest many girls — is machine learning. Machine learning is able to take data that we are unable to manually analyze comprehensively and helps find patterns in it. This is becoming an increasingly prevalent tool in many different disciplines, even non-STEM based ones. Thus, even for girls that are interested in pursuing other fields, coding can be very useful. Girls should want to learn how to code because it is the future of the world and an amazing and fun skill to have!

C: In this increasingly technology-oriented world, it is essential to come up with new and innovative ways to use technology to improve other people’s lives. Programming is a growing job field as well as a great skill to have and apply in any job. This is the same reason why I think that girls should want to learn to code. I believe that by encouraging girls to learn to code, the gender gap in technology and in jobs will be lessened and gradually eliminated. I hope that by starting the Girls Who Code club at our school, Michelle and I have helped other girls discover how interesting and useful computer programming is.

Cassandra and Michelle at the National Technology Students Association Conference

You just finished your junior year, so you’re just now starting to think about applying to colleges. Do you plan to study computer science when you head to college?

M: I definitely want to study it, I’m not sure that I want to major in it, I think that I want to do something that can maybe apply computer science to a different field and not just computer science on its own.

C: For me I’m thinking if I’m not going to major in it I’m going to minor in it, but I’m definitely going to pursue a career in STEM.

Do you have any other plans for the future?

C: Something else we’re going to do with the Girls Who Code club in the future is we’re going to do outreach to elementary schools and middle schools in the area. We’ve noticed that different elementary schools of different calibers even have different levels of computer programming education so we’re going to go to the elementary and middle schools that are underperforming currently and teach computer programming to students in an after school program.

Follow their progress on the app’s social media accounts:

Instagram: @undermywingapp

Facebook: @gwcGHS

Facebook: @UnderMyWingApp

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