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Computer Fields Beckon Girls to Great Careers

Rachel Bowman likes robots so much she wants to own a robotics company someday. She spends half her school day in the Information Technologies program and the other half in the Mechatronics programs at Kent Career Tech Center.

In both programs, she uses computer language called coding to program really cool machines, like a robot nicknamed Bosley, who has strikingly human-like characteristics, and a robotic arm that can be used to assemble small manufacturing parts.

“I really like to be hands-on when I’m working,” said Rachel, a senior whose home school is Kent City High School. “Learning to program robots is a major thing needed in companies because everything is going into robots.”

Endeavor Elementary fifth-grader Jaidah Williamson teaches second-grader Kendall Sallie how to program Sphero, a robotic ball
Endeavor Elementary fifth-grader Jaidah Williamson teaches second-grader Kendall Sallie how to program Sphero, a robotic ball

Rachel is onto something big. There will probably be high demand for the robotics company of her dreams, or she will have her choice of many other IT jobs. The need for women in the male-dominated industry is huge and rapidly growing, but Rachel is one of just 10 girls among 200 students in the Tech Center IT program. Two years ago, she was the first girl to sign up for mechatronics.

While in a classroom surrounded by boys, Rachel describes a video game she created that’s similar to the popular game “Temple Run.” Around her, activity buzzes as students develop coding that moves machines and directs computers to answer questions and complete requests.

It’s stuff Rachel finds fascinating.

“Girls are known to do more ‘girl-based’ programs, like nursing, and I feel girls don’t realize how important technology is these days and how interesting it can be,” Rachel said. “I’m kind of one of those girls who hangs out with the guys. I was interested in IT, and wanted to learn more about computers.”

She’s planning to got to Ferris State University to major in manufacturing engineering or mechanical engineering and minor in business management.

Girls Shouldn’t Miss Out

Attracting young girls to computer science is crucial in ensuring their ideas and creativity will have influence in the ever-evolving field, say leaders in the field. Google’s program, Made with Code, focuses on women’s under-representation in IT, and emphasizes that coding should be taught as an essential skill, like reading, because it’s used in many industries, from fashion to farming.

But despite its promising future, girls’ attention is diverted from IT. According to Made with Code, while 74 percent express interest in middle school, they at some point get turned off to science, technology, engineering and math careers. By the time the get to college, only 0.4 percent plan to major in computer science.

By the time girls in middle school now go to college, there will be 1 million more computer science jobs than people qualified to fill them MadeWithCode.com

But statistics also point toward a boom in those careers. According to information from Made with Code, by the time girls in middle school now go to college, there will be 1 million more computer science jobs than people qualified to fill them. Computer science jobs will be one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying sectors over the next decade, earning the highest entry-level salary of any bachelor’s degree, at about $60,000.

“There are a lot of girls who are good at math,” said Tech Center instructor Laurie Fernandez, who has a degree in computer science from Grand Valley State University and worked for years as a programmer at technology firm Lockheed Martin. “We need to get girls to realize that if you are good at math, you should come check out programming.”

Several female students at the Tech Center have earned the Breaking Traditions Award from the Michigan Department of Education, for surpassing obstacles and stereotypes to achieve success in career and technical education programs.

Endeavor Elementary fifth-graders Christine Tran and Amberly Nguyen practice coding
Endeavor Elementary fifth-graders Christine Tran and Amberly Nguyen practice coding

A Rewarding Career for Women

Women in IT is a passionate subject for Donna Stotjesdyk, manager of IT production support at Amway. In 2014, the most recent year examined, just 26 percent of those who worked in five divisions in global corporate IT at Amway were women. Of 70 managers today, 10 or fewer are women.

Stotjesdyk created a presentation with colleague Tina Abdoo, also an Amway IT manager, for the 2014 Grand Rapids IT Symposium, titled “Women in IT” about the value of females in the industry. Some key points:

Women improve a company’s bottom line. A study by Suisse Research Institute showed that over six years at 2,360 public companies, the share price of a company with at least one woman on the board outperformed companies with no women on the board by 26 percent. Also, women-operated, venture-backed high-tech companies averaged 12 percent higher annual revenues.

One of many ways IT branches out into the consumer world is through marketing, and women are the major decision-makers in family purchasing. They are very good at branding and turning what they like into effective marketing strategies through IT, said Stotjesdyk. They know what catches people’s attention.

As a way to get more women involved, exposing girls to computers and technology at a young age is key. After fourth or fifth grade, social factors can kill the IT dream in girls. They don’t want to be seen as the “geeky girl,” Stotjesdyk said.

To change that stereotype, she suggests buying young girls Legos and science kits, things they can build. “Get them exposed to those areas that might meet their interests… This career is incredibly fun.”

Minecraft vs. Inside Out

At Explorer Elementary in Kentwood Public Schools, fifth-graders recently taught second-graders basic coding using Made with Code and another program, Hour of Code, through Code.org, a nonprofit launched in 2013 to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women and students of color.

Using characters from the popular game “Minecraft” and movies “Inside Out” and “Frozen”, students learn to write code.

“Do you want to move forward once, twice or three times? What do you want to do?” fifth-grader Mia Palma asked second-grader Lauren Quada.

“Move forward twice,” Lauren answered as she input the coding to make a character move two spots on the laptop screen. She then pressed “Run”; the character moved and the program flashed, “Puzzle One Correct.”

Mia said she’s loved learning computer language. “Coding is very interesting. It’s about technology. and it helps your brain and it’s fun to do… If there are not many girls in it, I feel like girls can help each other get more interested.”

Fifth grade teacher Derek Braman loves to see the budding interest, as older girls help the younger ones. He said he’s all about eliminating “girl thing” or “boy thing” stereotypes.

“This is an expectation. This is something anyone can do.”

Tech Center student Elaine Weider works with a mini robot in information technologies
Tech Center student Elaine Weider works with a mini robot in information technologies

‘It’s Cool to Build Stuff’

Elaine Weider, a junior in the Tech Center, said she grew up around technology so she never thought of it as something “for the boys.” With computer parts often stored in her basement, she learned early how to build them. Now she plans to major in information security at Davenport University or Ferris State University.

“There aren’t many woman who are introduced to it,” she said, about computer programming. “But it’s cool to build stuff. This is the foundation of everything, from smartphones, to computers to robots. Information technology plays such a huge role in society today.”

So what would Elaine tell Mia and Lauren, the Kentwood girls intrigued by coding?

“I’d definitely encourage them to look into it more, and do everything you can to find out more about the field.”



Hour of Code

Made with Code

Code Like a Girl

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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