Meet a Girls Who Code Club Facilitator in Cabot, Arkansas

Danielle Lovellette is one of our Girls Who Code Club Facilitators, and she embodies the bravery that we value so highly! A former mechanical engineer who worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian, Danielle discovered a passion for education while working in Afghanistan, and eventually returned to Cabot High School, which she had attended as a student, to teach engineering. Cabot, Arkansas, where she teaches, is a small, tight-knit community of 26,000 people, with about 40 percent of students on free or reduced lunch and many students from military families. There’s a big push for computer science in the state, and Danielle rose to the challenge, despite not knowing how to code. (Her first experience with coding came when one of the engineering classes she taught introduced a unit on coding, and she taught herself to code over the summer with Codecademy courses.) She sees her Girls Who Code Club as a way to build girls’ confidence, and says that girls bring a different perspective to coding. Read on to learn about her experience starting a Girls Who Code Club.

Tell me about your background. You started as an engineer — how did you get into teaching?
I worked as a mechanical engineer for six years with the Army Corps of Engineers. I was a civilian — I wasn’t in the military or anything like that — and I really loved what I was doing. I did military projects, and I did projects along our Arkansas River, with locks and dams and powerhouses. Eventually I was given the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. This was in construction; I was going to be a project engineer. I was at Kandahar Airfield for six months. And it was there that I decided I wanted to go into education.

I wanted to be a part of something bigger to begin with, I wanted to do my part. And when I was there, part of my job was working with local Afghan contractors, teaching them how to do our pay requests, how to fill in all the different forms — even something as silly as how to word something in English. So just learning, teaching them how to work with us, I realized that education was so important. My sister is also a teacher — she teaches history — and I had said to her, “I really want to try this,” and she said “You’re crazy, going from engineering to education.” I was like, “Yeah, but I really like it!”

My sister had seen the job posting at Cabot High School where I teach now. It was an engineering position, and she goes, “That’s the best of both worlds, then!” That was when I decided I wanted to help kids further their education, their careers. We have such a short supply of homegrown engineers, so I really wanted to be a part of a program that was going to help encourage that. If you really want to make a difference in the world, you’ve got to educate.

I have three classes. There’s an Introduction to Engineering Design, which is like an entry-level class. I teach Principles of Engineering, which touches each field of engineering — mechanical, electrical, civil. We get into some programming — which was my first coding experience ever in my life, when I started teaching this class. They build robots and they program them to run. And then I teach Digital Electronics, which goes through binary to breadboarding to circuit design. My classes range from about 22 to 24 kids, and there are anywhere from two to five girls in each of my engineering classes. Last year in my classes I had two girls all day. So I’m excited that I have at least one girl in every class period.

What’s your community like?
We live in a town called Cabot, Arkansas, and there’s about 26,000 people. So it’s a pretty big town, but it’s still a very small town. We’re about 30 minutes northeast of Little Rock. Most people in this area, when they hear Cabot, they know it’s kind of a “richer” area, but it’s still pretty poor. 40 percent of our kids are on free and reduced lunch. It’s that small-town, kind of suburban, almost rural area.

We just started our computer science classes here last year. We had the governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, come and visit — he was doing a coding tour last year, and he came to visit our school because we’re one of the few districts in our state that have started offering computer science classes. I believe they offered one class last year, AP Computer Science Principles, and now we have three teachers. We have eight sections of our computer science classes and they’re all full. I believe they had to turn away some students because of such high demand. But the governor has really been on a push for computer science in the state, because we have a lot of jobs available in Arkansas for computer science, coding, programming, and they just said they couldn’t fill them.

I went to the high school where I now teach, and I took the same engineering classes that we offer here at Cabot High School when I was at Cabot High School. The Facilitator who just applied to help me with this Club was actually my engineering teacher. We have such a tight-knit community. We have an Air Force base about 20 minutes from us, so a lot of our girls, they’ve got military family backgrounds. So hopefully if they move on and go somewhere else, they’ll have a Girls Who Code Club that they can jump into.

How did your Girls Who Code Club get started?
It’s been kind of a whirlwind! I decided I was going to start the Club last spring, right toward the end of the year. I had heard about it, actually, on a TV show called Blindspot. One of the characters on there was a Facilitator for Girls Who Code, and I was like, What is that? I want to be a part of it. I looked it up and I was like, Oh this is a real thing!

There’s a really big push in Arkansas for the nontraditional right now — females in engineering, females in CS, males in medical classes. The principal came to me for ideas and I said, “Let’s try this club.” So I applied and got the approval and everything. We hadn’t even been in school two weeks, and I got the email asking if we’d like to participate in the Walmart event. I was like, We haven’t even recruited yet! I had a couple girls in mind who I’d semi-recruited from last year, so I asked them if they’d like to participate. We got the red carpet treatment when we went up there. Everybody was so nice and just so welcoming.

We had our first club meeting last week, and I had seven girls show up, so I was really impressed with our turnout, because I was thinking there might be one. We have our second meeting tonight. It’s really been amazing getting to see these girls come together and be excited about it. I had no idea how excited they really would be about it.

Did you have any fears or worries about starting a Club?
Yes. I’ve been kind of afraid because I don’t really have experience in computer science. Girls Who Code sent out an email over the summer about brushing up on some skills, and I was doing Codecademy. It was coming quite easy to me, so I was like Okay, I can do this. But at first I was like I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to code; I have a mechanical engineering background, which is the physical stuff. We’re building the stuff that someone is going to program. So now it’s kind of come full circle for me, and I really, thoroughly enjoy the coding and programming part of it. That was probably my biggest fear, because students want to ask you questions. They want to ask your opinion, ask your advice, and I hate being like, “Oh, I don’t know this.” As a teacher, you turn it around, and you say, “Let’s figure this out together. We’re learning this together.” So that was probably my biggest fear, but I was also really afraid that nobody would want to come. I was super excited about it, but then I had those insecurities like, “Oh, no one’s going to want to come to this.” Maybe they don’t want to participate. Or they’d say “My friends won’t come, so I’m not going to go. I’m not going to know anybody.” Those kind of things.

There are so many opportunities for kids to do things, so many options. A lot of my girls, they aren’t coming to the meetings, but they still want to be a part of it. So they’re giving time up in their evenings, like late, once they’ve done homework, to still be a part of the club. Because they still want to be a part of it.

Why is it important to teach girls computer science?
I love that feeling when someone asks, “Oh, what do you do?” and I say “I teach engineering.” Or “I’m a mechanical engineer.” They’re like, “Oh, wow, you must be smart,” or “You work really hard.” It’s such a good feeling and it helps build your confidence. And I would love for girls to have those kinds of feelings as well — that you are so strong and powerful and you can do anything you want in the world.

At our Club Rush, there were so many girls I heard say things like “I’m not smart enough for this,” “I can’t do this.” And I went and I chased them down, like physically ran after them, and I’m like, “Come here. Let me explain this to you.” I said, “Can you read?” She goes, “Well, yeah.” I was like, “Can you write?” She goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Then you can code. You can learn to code.” She gave me her information.

Teaching mostly boys in my classes, I don’t hear a lot from girls. And I hear them say these things — like, we were trying to pick our impact project, and the things they came up with were so different from what I imagine my boys would come up with. You have the male students that bring one side to it, but then the girls bring a completely different side, almost the compassionate, caring side. The impact project they picked was to develop an app or a website where they want to help people find a local psychiatrist or psychologist for mental health. Boys would not have picked that. [Girls Who Code] helps the girls with their confidence, but it will also help society. We all have different experiences, and if you’re missing out on that female element, you’re missing out on so much input, so much ideas and life experience. So that’s why I’ve always been like, Yep, girls.

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