Elisabeth Holm '21 and the Sisterhood of Native American Coders

Bishop’s senior Elisabeth Holm is helping girls ages 9-12 discover what she calls the “superpower of coding.”
In the summer before she started sixth grade, Elisabeth went to QCamp, sponsored by Qualcomm. The goal of the program was to “inspire young girls to do STEM, and did it work! I fell in love with the rush of my code finally working and the knowledge that I could create anything I wanted with this newfound superpower that I never would have discovered if not for QCamp.” Since then, she’s learned seven different programming languages, gained valuable experience with arduinos, robotics competitions and “a lifetime of knowing how to have fun in STEM.”
Upon the one-year anniversary of her grandmother’s passing, Elisabeth determined to honor her grandmother’s legacy and heritage in a truly meaningful way. She says, “As I progressed in my coding journey, I felt that it wasn’t enough for me to simply learn another programming language or do another project, I wanted to spread my knowledge with the world. Growing up, my grandma helped my parents raise me in our multigenerational home. She taught me how to use the molcajete – a traditional tool similar to a mortar and pestle. She instilled the values she had grown up with, such as patience, respect for elders and generosity. Growing up in the Great Depression, she lived a very humble life, but she shared what she had through warm food and cooking – and a strong sense of community and family. She passed down to me the traditions and values she knew and honored from her own culture, but didn’t emphasize my unique heritage or make me feel out of place with my ‘American-raised’ peers. I wanted to honor her open arms that welcomed each and every person she came across, as well as her proud Hispanic and Indigenous heritage.
So, I founded the Sisterhood of Native American Coders (SONAC), a nationwide all-girls coding Sisterhood that opens its arms to those typically left out of the STEM field. By showing 9-12-year-old Native American girls how technology can be fun and creative, they can see the expansive possibilities waiting for them if they open their minds to computer science. When I look at the bright, enthusiastic eyes of each SONAC member over Zoom, I see the same fire and strength my grandma carried with her. I know she would be proud of the way I shared my passion with generosity and created a connected community through these isolated times. Each time the girls smile, I hear the echoes of her bravo, Mija, bravo, and her wrinkled, dark, arthritic hands delicately clapping together.”
Elisabeth launched SONAC earlier this summer, and says it is “loosely based” on the Python Programming Club she ran as a junior at Bishop’s. She describes the process of getting things up and running as “a huge test of organization, teamwork, and persistence.” She created the website; the Python coding and mentoring curricula; recruited board members; arranged for five guest speakers; and manages three mentors and two additional teaching assistants. The mentors are “a wonderful team of women who are successful in STEM and have Indigenous ancestry.” The guest speakers are also women of Indigenous ancestry who work in STEM fields for entities like NASA and SpaceX.
SONAC is designed as a 12-week program, in which the girls meet three times per week for Learning Hour, Office Hours, Mentoring/Guest Speakers. Initially intending the program as an in-person, local opportunity, when things went pandemic-virtual, Elisabeth scaled up and offered SONAC as a national opportunity. Eighty-one girls from 24 states and 59 tribal affiliations are participating in the inaugural program session (July 20 - Oct. 20). Going forward, the program will remain online, “regardless of the COVID situation.”
A critical element of SONAC is its accessibility. Not only is the program free, she says, “The girls do not need to have any experience in STEM or coding beforehand, just curiosity, creativity and willingness to learn! They do need access to a device (a computer ideally, but a smart phone or tablet can work) and the internet.”
Elisabeth explains the program: “Learning Hour is where the girls learn how to code in the Python coding language using fun examples and engaging content. We approach and master concepts such as variables, conditionals, for loops, and many other exciting topics. These are the basic tools each coder has in their toolbelt by the end of the program, but a great coder is one who can use their creativity and imagination along with these concepts to make their visions become a reality.”
She continues, “Office Hours are when the girls, in small groups, can ask questions about the Learning Hour material, receive help on the cool projects they are working on, and have focused time to work on their fun project of the week. One example project is the Random Compliment Generator, which gives the human a randomly generated compliment using code.”
“During mentoring, we alternate each week between discussion and guest speakers. During discussion, our mentors lead discussions with the girls in medium-sized groups about pre-defined topics based on a study on mentoring girls in STEM, and skills they can use for their future in STEM.”
Her goal in this first session is to “ensure the girls are proficient in coding in the Python programming language and prepared for our culminating event, which is ‘Kids Hack the Crisis’ with the Swedish Institute (The Swedish Institute and UNICEF Sweden present Kids Hack the Crisis, where children all over the world can join in creating the sustainable solutions we need.)”
Midway through the first session, SONAC is already having a wider, deeper impact. Kenneth Chang, the IT officer at Apache College on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, recently reached out to Elisabeth to discuss the fundamentals of her program, and her thoughts about creating a similar coding club for students at his institution.
“Managing a non-profit from my bedroom can be stressful,” Elisabeth admits, but she’s passionate about this, and grateful for what she herself is learning. “I’ve learned how to reach out to people, and have productive meetings with my staff members. Each day I wake up and go to sleep wondering if my inbox is filled, but the hard work is all well worth it because I know that I have the unique opportunity to change girls’ lives by sharing something I love. SONAC is more than a nonprofit to me, it is a nationwide family of young girls that reassures me that the world will be in good hands when I’m gone, held up by powerful Native American female innovators who discovered their superpowers in coding.
“As an underrepresented group, both as Native Americans and females, the 81 young girls in the Sisterhood of Native American Coders are supported by people similar to themselves, giving them the chance to not be overpowered and learn in a welcoming, open arms environment. I believe our Sisterhood should be more than a coding classroom, so the girls attend “Mentoring” each week, learning about the values of our Sisterhood, seeing their potential future through successful Indigenous female guest speakers and gaining lifelong skills such as effective communication, teamwork, and supporting their “Sisters.” I’m trying to help solve educational and gender inequalities, but with the skills the girls have now, they can go on to be the next generation’s innovators and do much more than I could have done myself.
“Our next session is this Spring and I hope to continue operating SONAC for many sessions to come in order to inspire as many girls as possible to pursue a career in STEM.
“We are a strong, proud Sisterhood with the female innovators of the future!”
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The Bishop’s School is an independent, coeducational college-preparatory day school for students in grades six through twelve who live throughout San Diego County. Founded in 1909, the School is affiliated with the Episcopal church.