I was first introduced to engineering and technology 30 years ago when I was in elementary school. My fifth grade teacher taught our class about computer programming on Apple IIe computers, and I loved the challenge. I didn’t know that computer science or engineering careers existed—I was just very interested in doing more of it and having fun.
When I found out that I could study this in college and get paid to program computers, I knew a technology career was for me. This early experience motivated me to continue taking programming courses, and after high school, I was on my way to MIT to study engineering.
After graduating from college, working as an engineer, attending grad school at Harvard, then working in science and engineering education for 10 years, I decided to go back to my elementary school and launch the DIY Girls program to give girls an early experience with technology just like the one that sparked my interest.
Sparking an Interest
Nationally, less than 15 percent of all fourth through eighth grade girls show an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). DIY Girls currently works with underserved girls in these grade levels in order to have an effect on the girls as they enter adolescence and start to form career interests.
Research shows that young girls often report lower levels of confidence in their abilities to do well in science and technology and, as a result, decide not to take higher-level courses in these subjects in high school. But this decision can have a significant impact on their career options. DIY Girls seeks to provide an early experience that will give girls the tools and confidence to continue pursuing STEM and make better educational decisions.
The DIY Girls program model integrates three factors to ensure girls’ success:
- Engagement. We start fifth grade girls off with an intensive after-school program that's held at their school twice a week for two hours daily during the school year. We continue offering programs during the summer to keep girls engaged. Our programs provide engagement, excitement and exposure to creating with technology. Girls design and make toys, program their own video games, design creative inventions with conductive paint and make wearable electronics products. Our projects help provide motivation and relevance so the girls want to learn technical skills.
- Capacity building. The girls in our program make real things and learn practical technical skills that can be applied creatively. If you visit any of our programs, you'll see girls coding, soldering, building electronic circuits, using a 3D printer and building with power tools. Girls are learning by doing while applying the math and science they learn in school. And they’re gaining confidence and practical in-demand skills for 21st century careers.
- Continuity. We aim to provide a continuous pathway to success. From fifth grade through 12th grade, our goal is to connect girls to opportunities to gain more technical and leadership skills, and introduce them to careers while providing guidance to support their advancement.
DIY Girls has been successful in providing young girls with a sense of belonging, an opportunity to develop confidence and a place to be comfortable to explore and tinker with technology. It’s been great for me to watch the girls develop into creators and see how much they enjoy being challenged.
Ivette, a fifth grader in our program, recently told me that she likes being in DIY Girls because the projects are hard but still fun. Similar to my own early experience in elementary school, I've found that girls keep coming back to us because of the excitement of new challenges and the fact that they're making real things that others value.
The Future of Tech
What excites me the most about my work is that tools which were formerly only available in engineering labs are now more accessible than they were when I was a young girl. The recent accessibility of 3D printers, open source hardware and software development platforms allows a 10-year-old girl to design and build products that only an engineer could have made 30 years ago. The girls in our program are learning to use these tools today and will be well-prepared to participate in the future of technology product development.
I envy them and wish I had had these experiences when I was their age. This is what motivates me to continue offering cutting-edge technology experiences for them.
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Photos: iStockphoto, Robert Pacheco