Although women comprise a small fraction of tech professionals—just one in four, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology—several nonprofits and startups are working to jumpstart women’s participation in computer science.
In a previous column, I considered Grace Hopper Academy, a New York City coding bootcamp designed explicitly for women. GHA’s sister school, Fullstack Academy, takes that program online with a Remote Immersive program. Most recently, I examined how the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) has expanded female educational access in sub-Saharan Africa using big data. But what about middle school girls here in the United States?
Middle school is perhaps the most prudent place to promote female participation in STEM, according to several studies. Given that many girls rule out tech careers by high school, educators and administrators would be wise to pique student interest before it’s too late. A Philadelphia-based non-profit called TechGirlz takes that challenge seriously.
In addition to running The Women in Tech Summit and a summer camp for teen girls, TechGirlz has created a library of open-source lesson plans that anyone can use to lead workshops on topics like podcasting and creating mobile apps. The nonprofit is also partnering with schools to roll out hands-on workshops that leverage those lesson plans. Perhaps most exciting is that those workshops enlist high school girls to act as teachers for middle school girls.
I spoke with Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of TechGirlz, and Deborah Bender, an educator at one of the partner schools, to learn more about the initiative and about how girls are taking a hands-on role in STEM education.
Welson-Rossman is the first to admit that she is not an educator by training. However, from her background in software development—where she was the only woman in her office—she is keenly aware of how few women pursue careers in tech. She concluded that the best way to spark interest is to introduce middle school girls to STEM education, and, since she founded TechGirlz in 2009, she has pursued partnerships with teachers and IT specialists alike.
Because these workshops rely upon free online resources like Khan Academy, most require little more than an instructor and a computer lab. Any teacher can run a workshop using TechShopz in a Box, which bundle together workshop plans, documents, and procedures. In fact, this week alone, there are workshops scheduled at Bryn Mawr College, Villanova University, and the Abington Free Library, according to the organization’s events page.
Last spring, TechGirlz began experimenting with student-driven workshops. Partnering with the Philadelphia Academies, TechGirlz launched a school/student program through which high school and college students can use their open-source bundles to conduct workshops. While teachers play a vital role in administering workshops, the beta program asks students to take the lead, sharing what they’ve learned, planning and organizing events, and coordinating workshop activities. I had a chance to speak with Deborah Bender, a Web design teacher at Roxborough High School, to learn more about what that program looks like in the classroom.
STEM by Students for Students
Bender has been teaching high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the Philadelphia system since the mid-1990s. She first encountered TechGirlz by way of Philadelphia Academies, with which her school has a partnership. (It should be said that, institutionally, Roxborough is unusually amenable to STEM integration, offering Philadelphia’s only three-year course in Web design.) Given that Bender teaches Web design, she was eager to think about how she could bridge the work she was doing with her high school students with TechGirlz’s mission to get middle school girls excited about tech.
What began as a pilot in HTML skills has since expanded to include CSS. In response to student demand, Bender plans to roll out a graphic-design workshop next year.
The workshops require close coordination with nearby schools in western Philadelphia. Bender coordinates with teachers in middle schools within walking or busing distance of Roxborough. The idea is to spark interest amongst the same girls who may later enroll in her classes. Cohorts of 20 or more middle school girls (grades 6 through 8) travel to Roxborough where they learn from Bender’s students in the school’s computer lab. Typically, her most experienced students take responsibility for the workshop, with younger or less experienced students acting as assistants.
For example, in a Google Doc that students are using to plan their next HTML/CSS, one student will work the laptop connected to the projector, two students will act as assistants, and four will share the role of instructor. Each of Bender’s students will teach a particular skill using TechGirlz materials and CodePen for the in-class activities. At the end of the class, the middle school girls will leave with personal Web pages, which they can print up, take home, and show to friends and family.
Leading by Example
Anyone who reads this column understands that I am convinced that improving student engagement relies less upon technological experimentation than decentralizing class authority. Tools are only tools without thoughtful methodology.
The school/student program enlists student-teachers to serve the ends of administrators, teachers, and students. Despite their best intentions, many public schools lack the resources and expertise to support classes outside the standardized testing regimen. But if a school has a computer lab, access to TechGirlz open-source resources, and a Web-design program or even a club, teachers can enlist students to conduct STEM workshops at minimal cost. For their part, teachers can be compensated indirectly (for example, with course release time). Moreover, while those teachers will need to be thoroughly engaged during workshops, they will occupy an advisory rather than teaching role, a welcome reprieve for many overworked public-school teachers.
Perhaps most importantly, these workshops model the role of women in tech. High school girls gain the opportunity—and the confidence boost—to inhabit roles of authority. “My kids love it,” Bender said. “They love being the teachers.”
From those roles, older students expand the realm of possibility for their younger peers. That is, introducing middle school girls to STEM is as important as allowing them to see themselves in that field. If Bender’s class is at all representative, those high school girls can serve as powerful ambassadors for STEM education. Students listen to other students, and if that sociability can be mobilized to encourage more girls to consider tech as a career, I suspect it will be good for women and good for the field.