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Mentoring Girls in Computer Science

Despite the healthy buzz around introducing children to computer science and coding in the K-12 years, there is a stark reality with which we contend: precipitously low numbers of girls and underserved minorities are studying computing in the United States. Despite many efforts to close this gap, figures of test-takers from recent advanced placement exams (a rough measure of teens’ interest in pursuing computing in college) still suggest that we have a long way to go to level the playing field for women and minorities.

At SRI Education, we’re doing our bit, through research and outreach efforts, to move the needle by engaging in efforts that especially target t(w)eens in middle school––a key time for identity building and when many children develop or lose an interest in particular subjects, as is sadly often the case with girls and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Over the last year, we have connected with youth in highly interactive events that help bring STEM fields more into focus and as a tangible goal. Two of these events were the Design_Code_Build program and Technovation.

Design_Code_Build Helps Engage Students and Build Enthusiasm for Technology

Shuchi Grover poses with several students
Shuchi Grover (center left) with students. Photo: © Douglas Fairbairn Photography / Courtesy of the
Computer History Museum

In Fall 2014, the Design_Code_Build program introduced more than 400 Bay Area middle school students to the basic concepts of computer science involved in coding, such as logic, structure, space and change. Activities held in a series of events at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California for children in grades 6-8 emphasized problem solving, teamwork, and project-based learning, and also provided students rich opportunities to gain hands-on experience.

Each event was keynoted by a “rock star” computer scientist who shared his or her personal story to inspire students to learn the math and coding skills they will need to hold 21st century jobs in computer-driven fields such as technology, engineering, medicine, finance, and design. The final event included girls from various local nonprofit organizations, including Girls Innovate, NASA SEMAA CoderDojo, TechGYRLS, and BlackGirlsCode. SRI Education’s Shuchi Grover delivered the keynote. She shared her own journey, which started with her 1982 proclamation to a newspaper in her hometown in India that she wanted to study computer science, to now being a computer science education researcher at SRI.

Of particular interest for the children was Grover’s Computing is Everywhere! playlist. It includes clips from various videos that give a glimpse of the enormous impact that computing has in almost every domain of human endeavor today––from simulating human hair in the Disney movie “Tangled,” to solving the problem of accidents caused by human error through self-driving cars, to incorporating computing in ingenious ways in crafts and textiles. These clips help open girls’ eyes to the possibilities that computer science presents as an engaging and creative problem solving discipline. See the entire video of the keynote on the Computer History Museum’s YouTube channel, and some short blog posts about the talk here and here.

Technovation Provides Technology Entrepreneurship Opportunities for Girls Ages 10-18

Technovation is a relatively new program designed to promote women's exploration of the sciences, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and to inspire them to solve real-world problems through technology. The program began in 2010 with just 45 girls, and now involves thousands of girls in more than 60 countries in an annual, global competition that runs from February through April. Through an intensive three-month, 50-hour curriculum, small teams of up to five  young women each work together to imagine, design, and develop mobile apps, and then pitch their “startup” businesses to investors.

Technovation provides the curriculum and an online forum for its community to ask questions and interact with others, and matches each team up with a female mentor or pair of mentors to act as guides and role models. Technovation also provides tips to teachers and mentors based on what they’ve seen work well for many their peers around the world.

Last year, SRI Education’s Patti Schank served as a mentor to a team of five girls, along with a partner mentor, Zaz Harris, a colleague and former software developer at SRI Education. They met with the team of girls to kick off the project and get to know each other, and then followed up with the team on a weekly basis in a Google Hangout to provide feedback on their ideas and designs. They also helped the girls scope the project, and brainstorm and problem-solve together on topics ranging from writing a business plan to developing a survey to debugging specific programming issues. The Technovation curriculum supported the girls’ progression through weekly lessons and activities around topics including ideation, product design, prototyping, branding, pitching, and developing a business plan.

The team iterated through several ideas, and fairly quickly narrowed in on the idea of creating a mobile app, which they called “MissedIt.” The app’s goal was to help students catch up on schoolwork if they were absent or just missed some information in class.

The girls researched competitor apps, developed a user survey that they sent to students in their school to learn more about kids needs for such support, analyzed the results to help prioritize the functionality they would design, designed screen layouts on index cards, learned how to use the App Inventor tool (for developing mobile applications), developed a simple prototype, produced a project and demonstration video as well as a pitch video, and wrote a business plan to illustrate the need for and purpose of their app. They also presented their work at a Bay Area Technovation Showcase.

It was an empowering experience for the girls to create an application to solve a real problem in their community, pitch their application to other teams and judges, and meet other teams and see their ideas and solutions. Technovation is a great program that inspires girls to change the world with technology and pursue computer science as a career. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for professional women to serve as mentors and role models to guide, encourage, and help girls overcome challenges, gain confidence, and learn to become entrepreneurs.