Growing Opportunities for Girls in IT
Job growth in STEM related fields continues at a rapid pace. Information technology, in particular, is seeing a shortage of qualified workers. The U.S. Department of Labor expects that in just four years, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings – with universities struggling to produce only one-third of the graduates qualified to fill those jobs.
How many of those graduates will be women? Right now, not that many. While more and more women have pursued STEM degrees, especially in biological sciences, in other fields, such as computer science, women earn only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.
It was not always so for women in computer science. Prior to the 1980s, women majoring in computer science were rising along with other STEM degrees, as the following graph shows:
Percent of Women Majors, By Field
So what happened in the 80s? Many researchers who puzzled over the phenomenon have attributed the decline with the advent of home computers in the 1980s. These early computers were essentially gaming devices with themes that appealed more to boys, and were marketed exclusively to boys. Movies featuring male hackers or computer “nerds” also reinforced the male-only nature of computing.
Recognizing that they are missing out on nearly half the IT workforce potential, computer giants like Microsoft, Google along with many other IT and engineering companies are now investing major resources and joining with schools, universities and informal learning institutions in finding ways to help girls catch up. A regional leader in providing educators with teaching technologies and support, the College of Education’s Technology and Learning Center (TLC) along with the new ED Collabitat have joined with the St. Louis Girls Inc. chapter to help change the way girls and young women approach computer science through informal learning activities.
“Girls Inc. nationally is one of several organizations at the forefront of educating and supporting girls in the STEM fields, computer science in particular,” said Keith Miller, the College of Education’s Orthwein Endowed Professor for Lifelong Learning in the Sciences. “So teaming up with them was a natural for us.”
That involvement has included an on-campus experience for high school girls in a summer STEM career exploration program, a number of events for girls at the St. Louis Science Center, and, on a weekly basis, visiting Girls Inc. for an after school Girls’ Tech program. For the past three years, Miller, along with Amber Bell-Christian, who is program producer in the ED Collabitat, and UMSL student Candice Clossum have packed up robots, computer toys and STEM learning kits for after school Girls’ Tech sessions. Each six-week session focuses on girls grouped by their age.
“We like to start when they’re really young,” Miller said. “The five and six year olds are really open to it, they are fascinated and you don’t hear the ‘I hate math’ often echoed by older girls. One of our main goals is to break those barriers and stereotypes that computer science and engineering are only for boys.”
Each week, the girls are treated to new STEM-themed experiences. “We engage them in purely informal learning where the girls have un-pressured time to explore and experience the possibilities of science, technology and engineering,” said Bell-Christian.
Gearing up Girls to Love Technology
Some of the robotics that the girls work with include: a Vgo robot that allows for virtual visits to external sites, such as the Science Center (featured on CNN); Meccano, an anthropomorphic robot that kids like to program for simple dance moves and actions; Sphero, an app-enabled robotic toy, like an electronic pet, that younger kids enjoy and older kids can program to learn the basics of algorithms and syntax of programming.
Other STEM activities involve working with Goldie Blox, a line of girl-themed engineering learning toys that includes a zip line action figure, and Perfume Science, where girls can learn the chemistry of designing their own fragrance.
Bell-Christian was on board to lead the project in its infancy, and Clossum, a pre-social work major at UMSL and student worker in the TLC, has taken over the lead in the Girls’ Tech program at Girls Inc.
“I noticed that when you mix fun and STEM together, that can have a huge impact on the STEM learning process,” Clossum said. “In some cases the girls would have to warm up to the idea of even learning about STEM. When I see a girl discover a new way to code or work one of our robots, and the excitement of learning how to tackle a math problem in a different way, that reassures me that what I am doing is truly affecting the girls.”
The weekly Girls’ Tech experiences are only part of the partnership that the college has been developing with the agency. Girls’ Tech participants exhibited at the Chesterfield Air Show, where they presented the robots to fair goers. The TLC also partnered with Girls Inc. for five events sponsored by Google at the SLSC for girls to explore coding. UMSL and the college host girls in their first year of Girls Inc.’s Eureka! — a STEM-focused program that begins with rising 8th graders, combining sports and personal development activities with an intensive experience on a college campus for four weeks.
“We are looking to expand our partnership with Girls Inc. to include internships for students in our Bachelor of Educational Studies (BES) program,” said Miller. BES is for students who are excited about education, but looking for challenges outside the traditional classroom – such as informal learning institutions and agencies like Girls Inc. “The field of computer science education with a focus on developing opportunities for women is critical and ripe for development,” he said.
UMSL has a number of programs and incentives to attract bright STEM graduates into teaching. We Teach MO enables undergraduates to earn both a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences and a teacher certification in biology, chemistry, physics or math within 138 credit hours. The university also has NSF-funded Noyce Scholarships to fund scholars in the Building Excellence in STEM Talent (BEST) Program. The BEST project offers up to $20,000.00 for an individual with a BS in a STEM discipline to come back for a Master’s degree and secondary teaching certificate.
Her work teaching STEM with girls and young women has affected how Clossum will approach her future in social work. “At first I did not think that I was good at anything STEM and when I started working with the girls I did not know what to expect,” she said, adding that Miller and Bell-Christian guided her and taught her how to make STEM interesting and fun for girls.
“Knowing that women are not dominant in the STEM career field, and knowing that these girls are having the early opportunities in life to be exposed to STEM, that pushes me to continue,” she said. Her experience with Girls Inc. and the TLC has encouraged her to broaden her thinking and learn to teach STEM to youth in a fun way. Having an opportunity to do this has definitely encouraged me to develop, work, and expand my ideas, she said, adding that she hopes to one day start her own girls’ conference focused on self-awareness and development. “The key to me is to always think outside the box!”
For more information about ways to engage youth in STEM activities, please contact Amber Bell-Christian at BellChristianA@umsl.edu.
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