Curiosity? These girls have IT. Enthusiasm? They have IT. A club of their own where they can explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? They have that, too.
In the IT Girls Club at Berkeley Lake ES, 4th and 5th grade girls have the opportunity to learn more about STEM-related careers in a girls-only setting that helps boost their confidence and extend their learning.
“As our world continues to evolve, the demand and need for technical skills and understanding becomes more and more important for members of society to be competitive in the marketplace and thrive as individuals,” says Grant Shih, a member of the school’s Local School Council who works in technology services.
And, why just girls?
According to the Census Bureau, while women make up nearly half of America’s workforce, they hold just a quarter of STEM jobs. With the STEM employment sector booming, it’s important to ensure that all students have the academic background and a good shot at these high-paying positions.
A few years ago, Mr. Shih says he got a glimpse of how the gender imbalance in STEM gets its start. His daughter, a 3rd grader at the time, was struggling with her math homework and that struggle was affecting her confidence in the classroom. “It just broke my heart,” says Mr. Shih.
That’s when he committed to removing barriers and encouraging young girls to explore STEM interests.
In 2015-16, Mr. Shih launched the IT Girls Club with the support of Dr. Susan Bearse, the school’s principal. Starting with lessons developed by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), they’ve continued to build on that foundation with a focus on the girls’ interests. “It’s intentional,” says Dr. Bearse. “We want to build on those interests and increase their confidence in STEM areas.” Adds Mr. Shih, “We’re here to activate their interest in STEM fields, and if there’s a passion for STEM, we want to feed it.”
The before-school club typically features a hands-on activity and presentation from someone working in a STEM field, usually a woman. STEM-focused activities have included an egg parachute drop, binary coding with Skittles, making “code” bracelets, basic web design, building bridges with straws, and hands-on experiments. Presentations have been on topics as varied as personal finance for entrepreneurs, tech innovations, digital media creation, communication, cybersecurity, networking, and goal-setting.
“The club helps people realize all the things you can do with STEM,” says Megan, a 5th grader. “It opens a lot of careers.” Megan is among the originating club members who returned for a second year and she’s looking forward to STEM opportunities once she moves on to Duluth MS next year.
During the 18-week program, the students have the opportunity to interact with more than a dozen successful women working in STEM fields. These community partners—tech firm CEOs, project managers, technical recruiters, digital producers, engineers, and IT specialists—have given the girls a close-up view of the work they do, the academic path they followed, and a preview of the STEM careers that might be waiting for them after college.
“I was so pleased to see how excited they were, and eager to share personal examples,” says Jessica Nealis, an account executive at Randstad Technologies US, who got the girls buzzing about miniaturized computing power with Raspberry Pi, drag-and-drop programming, and tech innovations in the toy industry.
Ellie, a 4th grader, says she likes learning new things at every meeting and sees technology in her future. “I think I might want to build technology and come up with ideas and help other people sell their ideas,” she says.
Corporate donations have covered the cost of supplies and breakfast for the girls at each meeting. And sponsors have supported a field trip—a behind-the-scenes look at technology in use at CNN headquarters. The girls also were invited to see the state high school robotics championship up close with a “pit pass.”
“[The CNN tour] was a great day of learning,” says Mr. Shih. From green screen technology to app development, women in the industry shared their work with the girls in an up-close peek at the types of jobs that use STEM skills.
In another club activity, teams of girls worked together to research STEM topics, presenting to their peers on a range of subjects such as the future of transit, virtual reality, and robotics. The girls learned about their topics in depth, but also learned presentation skills, how to translate complex technical information for others, and ways to work as a team. Some of the teams took their presentations a step further, competing together in the school’s recent Science Expo.
“We’ve seen lots of growth in the girls,” says Dr. Bearse, both in the girls’ academics and in their confidence. Kathy Bentley, the school’s science specialist, agrees, saying that girls in the club who used to be more reserved are now sharing their opinions and participating more in class.
And the girls are starting to see how STEM infuses many professions, from fashion and culinary pursuits to finance and vet science. Learning about new technology and how it works has Alana, a 5th grader, considering high-tech fashion design as a profession. 4th grader Elsie credits the club with opening her eyes to new friends and new ideas. “I like that I meet new people who I’ve seen around school but didn’t get a chance to know.” Also a 4th grader, Mikal has an interest in the science of baking, sparked by experiments she’s done in IT Girls, but has a hard time pinpointing the best thing about being in IT Girls. “My favorite thing is everything,” she says.
Mr. Shih and Dr. Bearse plan to continue IT Girls Club at Berkeley Lake and hope to extend the idea to other schools in the cluster, eventually helping to establish a statewide network of clubs with the support of community members like Katie Tucker, vice president of talent management at SEI and an active volunteer with IT Girls. "It’s been a true honor and pleasure to provide, not only programming, but support to such young and inspiring minds and to see the difference that this is making in the lives of these young ladies,” says Ms. Tucker. “My hope is that these young ladies are able to pursue their dreams and also leverage the relationships and experiences provided by IT Girls.”
For his part, Mr. Shih is looking forward to the “end” of IT Girls. “My goal is to not need a program like IT Girls anymore” as more girls pursue STEM studies and more women in the field can serve as role models. For now, he’s willing to feed “the pipeline” with little girls who have big dreams for futures in STEM.
Interested in learning more about connecting girls with STEM?
From NCWIT, check out reasons why young women should consider a career in Information technology.
In this GCPS tipsheet for parents, learn how to encourage a girl’s interest in computing.
Learn about computer science in GCPS in this Communiqué story, “Breaking the CODE on computer science.”
Check out these how-to programming resources:
- Code.org— Tutorials and activities.
- Code Studio— Online courses for all ages.
- Made with Code— Projects and encouragement for girls, who are underrepresented in the computing field.
- App Inventor— Write apps for your Android phone or tablet.
- Hopscotch— Programming for iPad.
- Scratch— A free programming language from MIT. Check out video tutorials here.
- Khan Academy— Learn how to program and how to create webpages