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TechGYRLS program gives girls peek into technology fields

By Lee Reinsch

GREEN BAY – Eleven-year-olds Brennan Hagedorn and Alex White click, drag and drop pink doohickeys across their screens onto green whatchamacallits.

They’re in a classroom at the YWCA Greater Green Bay, where tiny lights on their round, palm-sized Adafruit circuit boards light up.

The girls seem to know what they’re doing – unlike one-third of the adults in the room.

For the day, they’re TechGYRLS, and this is part of the TechGYRLS-S.T.E.A.M. Experience Series.

TechGYRLS is a national YWCA program that gives girls in grades 3-8 a peek at technology fields. S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) is Greater Green Bay’s addition to the national program.

Hagedorn and White are learning maneuvers that cause the circuit boards to beep, light up or play a fragment of a tune.

But they’re also learning they can be computer scientists if they want.

“All it takes is passion and the ability to stick with it,” their instructor, Amy Bires, a member of the Women in Technology Wisconsin board of directors, said.

Bires is regional manager of Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS).

She said the percentage of girls interested in computer science diminishes after elementary school, and by high school, it’s minimal.

Despite the ‘tech’ in its name, the TechGYRLS-S.T.E.A.M. program isn’t limited to computer technology.

Other opportunities this year included learning about space at the Neville Public Museum’s space station, dissecting a sheep’s eyeball at UW-Green Bay, identifying plants at the Green Bay Botanical Garden, and creating a mixed-media self portrait at Art Garage.

Other groups the YWCA partnered with include North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance, Weidner Center, and CESA 7’s CSTEY (Computer Science Talent Ecosystem Youth) program.

Field visits are single-day workshops lasting one to three hours. The YWCA buses the participants to and from the field visits, followed by a snack and a survey of what they thought of the experience.

Suzanne Wittman directs the YWCA’s Women’s Empowerment Center, which organizes TechGYRLS-S.T.E.A.M. through a Women’s Fund grant. 

“The idea was could we take girls in grades 3-8 on field visits, where they could witness a female engineer working, a female scientist or a female in technology,” Wittman said. “The idea is to show them that they can economically advance by going into careers that offer them better-than-living-wage salaries. We felt that there are a lot of girls that don’t know that they can do much, other than what their parents did, if they only had a chance to be introduced to some of these industries.

Wittman said every workshop is different.

“If there is something that another business or organization can teach the girls… then that’s my goal, because we can’t teach everything,” she said. “We don’t know everything. But certainly there are other businesses and organizations that can.”

Wittman said they’re looking for 12 sponsors for next year’s lineup, which will be weekly from June through August instead of monthly.

“So that (will be) 12 different trips where they could see women working in technology, or science, or engineering, or the arts, or math and know that there are jobs out there in the future for them,” she said.

Bires tells the girls about internships and other opportunities for them when they’re a few years older, including the new technology program with UW-Green Bay’s Rising Phoenix program.

She said their expressions seem to say high school is a million years away, and being grownup is something that only happens to grownups.

Through the Rising Phoenix program, high school juniors and seniors can take college courses and earn an associate’s degree in computer science before they graduate high school, Bires said.

“If they’re interested in continuing that pathway to the bachelor’s degree, all those credits will translate to any UW school,” she said. “The main focus is building that talent pipeline and keeping them here. How can we showcase our businesses that have the need for our talent, rather than (going) to the East or West Coast or down south? We have some amazing businesses here in northeast Wisconsin.”

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