How Four Students Promote Gender Equity and Diversity in STEM
One of our areas of focus for equip is supporting equity and representation for female students in STEM. In honor of that, this most recent article comes to us from the founders of She Can Tech, a student-volunteer led technology program working to increase the meaningful participation of women in STEM.
The program was founded by a group of female high school students with goal to empower a community of women in a safe environment to contribute to sustainable development by taking advantage of opportunities and using technology.
Right to Left: Mireina Keith, Jade Kokinda, Kelly Schaffer, Makayla Zettler, Kassandra Degara, Sara Mitchell, Sanja Kirova of She Can Tech
Why Did You Start She Can Tech?
In 2015, women held only 25 percent of all computing occupations. These numbers are even lower when considering women of color: Latinas and Black women hold only one percent and three percent of these jobs, respectively. The data published by the Bureau of Labor does not get much better even when we broaden our search for females in STEM generally.
This data is experienced daily by young women whose interests in STEM are just blossoming. The lack of not only female but also diverse professors, mentors, role models, and even teammates makes for a disheartening community.
Yet tech is love at first sight. We love building, coding, and designing.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a supportive network made up of coaches, teachers, parents, and organizations, we can pursue these projects in a state of semi-loneliness.
Not all students have access to supportive networks, let alone access to opportunities to explore STEM. Realizing these disparities through our own experience in robotics and STEM classes and clubs led us to establish a near-peer technology organization in Greater Northwest Indiana.
She Can Tech is an AspireIT-started program with a mission similar to that of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT): to increase the meaningful participation of girls and women in STEM. Our goal is not only to see more female faces on robotics teams, pre-engineering courses, and science and math classes but also to change the perception of girls and their capabilities in our communities by instilling participants in our programs with a sense of competence.
What Makes She Can Tech Different from Other STEM Programs?
Our She Can Tech team is entirely student-run by high school and college women. We work year-round to bring opportunities to disadvantaged communities.
More specifically, we access our target audience by partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs in Indiana to bring STEM to the families who can benefit from these opportunities most. We also partner with the schools and robotics clubs to raise awareness about opportunities like ours.
Thanks to grants like AspireIT, we are able to offer free computer science and STEM workshops, networking opportunities, and mentorship while establishing a sense of community.
Most importantly, She Can Tech workshops are a non-traditional way of learning. The age proximity between the team of co-leaders and our students promotes collaboration during and outside of workshops. Participants are highly encouraged to make mistakes, troubleshoot, and share lessons learned with each other. In order to sustain the program, we onboard and train qualified past participants to join us in leading She Can Tech.
What Does a Day at She Can Tech Look Like?
A day at She Can Tech starts with a preview of our very flexible agenda, an introduction to an Engineer of the Day, and icebreakers. A tutorial of the workshop-specific platform follows before participants begin working on projects with a “no (wo)man left behind” policy.
We regroup multiple times between then in Share Circles to share important concepts and key ingredients to a successful project. At Share Circles, participants are challenged to detach from their projects for a snack break to discuss how their projects may fit into the bigger picture of social issues or solving a specific problem.
Every workshop varies in projects, but projects are based upon social issues like climate change, health, and financial instability. After Share Circles, participants go back into their projects with a more mindful perspective of their project.
At the end of the day, we either do a group reflection or participants present their finished projects.
What Do Workshops Include?
During workshops, we focus on learning by doing, so we integrate key concepts within Share Circles, icebreakers, unplugged activities, and big projects.
The first task we give participants at our workshops is to describe or draw a scientist, computer programmer, or an engineer. The second is to talk to someone at the workshop they have never met before. The third is to grab the laptop and follow along.
When we first shaped what the workshops would look like, we focused on making a fun yet intensive, wide-ranging, and fast-paced introduction to computer science within which every participant could find an interest.
We use a variety of platforms, and computer science enables us to diversify the applications of computer science we speak of throughout the workshops. The creative components give many girls the opportunity to see themselves working with technology in their future career.
Additionally, soft skills like presentation, interviewing, and leadership are woven throughout the workshops.
Throughout the year, we invite speakers and representatives from computer science and STEM fields to interact with the students. This career component is important for the participants to be able to see themselves pursuing a career using technology in the future.
What Makes She Can Tech Programs Engaging and Effective?
Engagement with the participants on an eye-to-eye level allows us to be effective in helping participants produce projects by the end of each workshop. At every workshop, we teach the basics of the platform we will be using, and then we emphasize initiative.
Participants are always ready to dive into their own specialized projects by exploring whatever platform we are using, working together in groups to share success stories, and working under the guidance of a co-leader in a smaller group to learn how to enhance their projects.
Each workshop is accompanied by music, snacks, giveaways, and fresh project themes. At the end of the year, we host a “Demo Day” where we celebrate the work of students and involve parents and community members.
How Do You See She Can Tech Evolving? Where Is It Going?
In the short term, we plan on adding a Technology 101 Workshop that teaches the basics of technology and leadership. We plan on growing our team, budget, and workshops as well as hosting the first local hackathon.
Eventually, our team sees She Can Tech evolving into a larger non-profit organization with branches across multiple locations with communities like ours, where we are able to serving a more diverse population of minorities and first-generation or low-income students with even more workshop offerings.
We see the She Can Tech community spanning across multiple age groups and offering a spectrum of experience and wisdom for women in the STEM fields. We hope that She Can Tech will be able to not only inspire creativity and personal development but to also provide disadvantaged students the tools and resources to become involved in STEM.
Access to resources at school is helpful for providing students with STEM exploration opportunities, but it is valuable to understand that the changemaking happens after school. After school is where students are able to reinforce knowledge by engaging academically with friends and becoming involved in meaningful causes. After school is when students need to be engaged and to have access to technology.
The key is to always think of the future, especially if you feel defeated. When you are one of the few in your community trying to find a solution or implement one, it is difficult and can be discouraging at times. If you look to the future where the problem is solved, you’ll find the will to keep fighting for that change.
It doesn't take a magical fairy to change a community. No matter who you are or where you are, you can make change. Even if you do not have the most supportive or active community, there will always be others to support your mission. You will never know who if you do not try.
If not you, then who? If you find an issue in your community or in the world that bothers you, take a step out of your comfort zone to fix it. There are over seven billion people in this world, so there will always be at least one person who believes in the cause for which you're fighting. When Sanja started She Can Tech, she didn’t know that Kassandra, Kelly, and I would help her in starting it.
Every day since that moment, we have been progressing toward building a community fighting to close the STEM gender gap. It’s going to be rough, but focus on the goal. Make connections and partnerships and network with others who can help you in your cause. No matter what you face, don’t give up.