Cracking the code
DigiGirlz gets girls excited for technology
By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – On Thursday, April 25, the Foxview Intermediate School library teemed with fifth- and sixth-graders.
Not in itself odd, given that it’s a school. But these kids – about 57 out of 60 of them – are girls.
It’s DigiGirlz, part of Microsoft’s TechSpark program, which is an economic development program focusing on technology underway in six rural areas in America.
DigiGirlz focuses on girls, but the door is open to boys.
Michelle Schuler, past president and co-founder of Women in Technology Wisconsin, runs the Microsoft TechSpark program in Wisconsin.
It’s not hard to get littler girls interested in technology, she said, but it’s keeping them interested that’s the tough part.
“We’re losing girls by fifth grade; they start dropping off and getting interested in other things,” Schuler said. “We focus on encouraging them by bringing role models into the schools, and I think it’s really cool that schools now are starting to map out pathways for computer science from the lower grades all the way through graduation.”
Most of the kids here today belong to the GEMS club – Girls Excelling in Math & Science – at Foxview.
In pairs, they’re noodling around on laptops with screens that would look like the old DOS system screens, were it not for the colored on-screen buttons.
Girls are dragging blue-, pink,- and yellow-colored buttons across the screen and dropping them onto equally colorful on-screen cards.
Then the small, round Adafruit circuit boards are handed out, and the kids connect them to their computers with USB cords.
What passes is a long series of beeping and blipping computer sounds, with squinting and scrunched faces hovering over them, punctuated by periodic squeals of delight when something goes right.
“I was having technical difficulties, but I figured it out,” said fifth-grader Kennedy Chandler.
She said she’s learning about computers because she wants to help people solve problems.
“If you can solve a problem, there’s a job for you,” said presenter Diane Doersch, chief technology officer for the Green Bay school district and Women in Technology Wisconsin member.
“There are many men in the field, but not many women,” Doersch tells the group. “I like to get girls into technology because if you know technology, you can be the boss of boys.”
This is received with unanimous grins, even by the boys in attendance.
Cold, hard numbers
Just 17 percent of Wisconsinites graduating with computer science degrees are women, according to Microsoft TechSpark’s Schuler.
Moreover, only about 1,000 people in the state graduate with these certifications.
Wisconsin currently has around 7,000 open jobs requiring computer science degrees, she said.
According to Girls Who Code, the technology gender gap is widening.
In 1995, women constituted 37 percent of computer scientists, and currently that number is 24 percent.
If nothing changes, according to Girls Who Code, by 2027 only 22 percent of computer scientists will be women.
It’s numbers like these that drive the leaders of these programs crazy.
Kelly Pufall, fifth grade math and science teacher, started GEMS at Foxview Intermediate.
GEMS is a nationwide program that Pufall had been involved with in Minnesota for 10 years previously.
She’d seen a drop in the number of girls electing more advanced math and science classes when registering for high school, and she knew it was time for GEMS.
“When it started, I thought I’ll be lucky if I get 10 girls signed up, but lists of 50 and 60 registered,” Pufall said. “It’s a matter of capturing their interest, propelling them forward and keeping them involved.”
GEMS provides a safe place for girls to learn about technology, she said.
“They get excited about it, and that builds their confidence,” Pufall said.
With 60 enrolled in GEMS, it’s separated into two groups of 30, each meeting once a month after school.
The school district recently paved the way for them to meet twice a month next year.
Many sessions incorporate some form of make-and-take project the girls (and boys) can take home.
“That way they’re continuing to process what they’ve learned as they tell those at home about what they’ve made,” Pufall said.
Eye on the future
The circuit boards light up in a rainbow of hues for several of the girls.
A miniature piano appears on one girl’s screen.
Somebody else’s computer is pinging out a tune of some sort. (Apparently, this was supposed to happen.)
“I want to be an oncologist,” said fifth-grader Emma DeGrave, when asked why she’s involved in this kind of program.
Abilene Wautlet, fifth-grader, seems inspired by a lot of things.
“There are many things I would like to explore, such as some kind of teaching, some kind of engineering, some kind of robotics,” she said. “And zoology. I might want to be a zoologist.”
“I just want to help people,” Chandler said.
And with the help of DigiGirlz, GEMS, Microsoft, Women in Technology Wisconsin, and Foxview Intermediate School, it looks like these wunderkinds are on their way to becoming whatever and whoever they want to become.