Want more girls in STEM? Start by building a community.

Students and educators from The National Center for Women & Information Technology lead a virtual Lunch & Learn on diversity in computing

When you think of computer science in western Pennsylvania, what do you see? A lab at Carnegie Mellon University? A course at the University of Pittsburgh? Maybe a big meeting at Google’s local office?

What you might not picture is a group of high school girls in a Venango County library, studying computer science with peer mentors via Zoom.

But this is what’s possible through the connective power of a learning ecosystem–one with regional heart and national reach.

Thanks to a partnership with The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), students enrolled in the Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) club received tutoring, mentoring, and even a field trip to a few of Pittsburgh’s famous campuses. And these experiences, according to club leader Laura Jones, have changed the girls’ lives forever.

The NCWIT-GEMS collaboration was just one of many shared during Remake Learning’s recent Computing Conversations and Community Collaborations Lunch & Learn. This lunchtime webinar focused on rural students and schools, and in particular, how partnerships can help encourage more girls to pursue computing.

Girls from rural communities with an interest in computer science face compounding challenges. Overall, 58 percent of rural schools report teaching some type of computer science class, but less than half of those teach coding (and only eight percent offer an Advanced Placement option). And once in the workforce, women are vastly underrepresented, making up only 26% of all professional computing positions.

Organizations like NCWIT help learners and educators overcome these hurdles by connecting girls of all ages and building a vital community of support around computing, technology, and other STEM fields.

NCWIT members joined the Lunch & Learn to share more about one of their core community-building programs: Aspirations in Computing (AiC).

AiC helps address women’s barriers to computer science by hosting a competitive awards program, supporting a peer mentorship model known as AspireIT, and perhaps most importantly, building a robust online and offline community of women in computing.

The AiC community is open to all of their high school award winners, along with any post-secondary student studying computing who self-identifies as a woman, genderqueer, or non-binary.

Today, this community tops over 20,000 members.

Two community members, Isabel Barrio Sánchez and Courtney Sheridan, shared their influences and experiences with Lunch & Learn listeners. Both are young women with a passion for STEM: Isabel is a computer science and mathematics senior at West Virginia University Institute of Technology, while Courtney is a recent Franklin Regional graduate and current computer science freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.

Their stories also served up plenty of insights for educators seeking to support diversity in computer science. Here are a few of their key takeaways:

Acknowledge the Challenges

Though the future of computing is looking more diverse, both women acknowledge the challenges facing rural and female students. For instance, K-12 schools near Isabel’s university often don’t offer computer science courses until high school, if at all.

“Kids in middle school and high school haven’t had an opportunity to have computing classes, especially girls…they don’t see other women in these fields,” she said.

Though Courtney’s high school offered more computer science curriculum, there was an obvious enrollment gender gap. She shared a photo from her high school robotics club: A room full of men, student participants and adult advisors alike.

“I took this picture because I was standing there thinking ‘Wow, I’m so alone,’” she said. “This is what it’s like being one of few women in STEM: some lingering self-doubt, some moments where you question if you should even be there…and you have this constant nagging feeling that’s sometimes overwhelming. And then, [you] realize that most of the guys don’t even think about it.”

Beyond geographic and gender diversity, educators must also consider the inclusion of students of color, especially girls, in computing programs, as they face even larger disparities in STEM education and careers. As of 2015, only about 10% of all STEM degrees were earned by women of color.

Recruitment of girls of color must be active and intentional, as described by NCWIT member and Connellsville Area School District guidance counselor Torrie Sparks: “We need all women, not just white women. We need girls of color, of every color, of every background…that is a way to really expand our community.”

Embrace Early Influences at School and Home

Early influences sparked both women’s interest in STEM. For Isabel, her parents, both doctors, always ensured she had opportunities to use computers and take part in other STEM activities.

Courtney’s first taste of computing came from a 4th-grade robotics club, and blossomed during middle school camps and courses, and later, as part of her FIRST Robotics Competition team in high school.

But what truly sparked her interest in STEM and computing, she said, was having a robot at home. “Just getting to run it around my house and try whatever I wanted to do and to fail and to be able to fix it” gave her the freedom she needed to explore and learn on her own.

Build Confidence…

Winning an AiC award in high school solidified Courtney’s belief in her computing skills.

“[When I applied] I didn’t think I was going to win anything…I thought, ‘I’m not that smart, I’m not that good at this.” But getting involved in NCWIT helped her gain confidence in herself and her ability to lead and be a role model for others.

Since her win, she’s continued to tap into the AiC community and now leads a local AspireIT program, where she mentors younger high school girls who are also interested in computer science.

…And a Bigger Support System

While 1-1 mentor relationships are vital, support from school administration and the community at large can make or break a girl’s passion for STEM and computing.

Support should start at the top down in school districts, including superintendents and principals, to counselors, teachers, and staff at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels.

In-school champions, along with public support from groups like Rotary and the community library, helped sustain Courtney’s interest in computing. Receiving specific, positive feedback as a young woman in STEM helped her understand her influence on younger girls, and that she wasn’t alone in her interests, passions, and experiences.

“I don’t have a straight answer for…what educators should know or should do, but I’m hoping by sharing my experience and what supported me will help give some insight.”

More from the Lunch & Learn

Watch the complete Lunch & Learn recording on YouTube, and access the slides here.

Resources From NWCIT:

From the University of Pittsburgh: