Innovate and inspire: Local programs encourage girls to go high-tech
With a strong presence from Mayo Clinic — and to a lesser extent, IBM — it should come as no surprise that initiatives to involve girls and young women in technology have taken off in Rochester. Coding is one of the most valuable skills anyone can have in the modern job market. Fortunately, it’s on the rise with the middle and high school students in southeast Minnesota.
One of the world’s top programs for encouraging girls to participate in technology is Technovation, the state’s subset being TechnovationMN. Rose Anderson and Ginny McCright are the co-chairs for the Southeast region branch of the program.
“What’s neat about the program is that the Technovation Challenge Global has put out this really fantastic curriculum that basically is like a kit that any community group can use to put together a team and go through the 12-week program, pull that curriculum piece and follow the steps,” said Anderson.
In this extracurricular program, girls in middle and high school organize into teams. Each team must have a mentor, usually a teacher who has access to the school, and mentors, who assist as the girls develop apps. But it’s not just coding they practice, as mentor Eric Anderson (Rose's husband) told me.
“They were asked at the beginning of the program to do every type of submitting for purchase in a business,” he said. “They had to come up with a very in-depth business plan, marketing search, a pitch video, a demo video — which turned out very funny. I think that’s what the program’s about, to show that everyone can learn how to do it. We felt like they got better at coding than we did.”
The girls used a program called AppInventor, developed out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which creates Android apps. One of the challenges of the program was dividing up the work among themselves, since there was so much more to do than coding.
The state competition in May, Appapalooza, ended with five teams from our area winning awards and entry into the semi-final round of the world pitch competition. One of these was a team the Andersons worked with from St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, which created an app called "subWayfinder".
In their pitch video, one girl struggles to find her way around the Mayo Clinic subway system then discovers this app which gives clear directions to find where she needs to go. For people on the go to appointments at the Clinic who aren’t familiar with Rochester, this would be quite beneficial.
“For me personally, because I work in design [at the Center for Innovation], it was basically like taking what we do at work every day, explaining it in more simple language so it kind of forces you to get out of the weeds and just get to the basics of how we approach design work,” said Rose Anderson.
“There’s a huge uptick in health care IT, and I would say additionally, this area is really strong in the programming and coding part. We had some fantastic mentors, some retired IBM and Mayo folks who brought that technology and coding expertise.”
Organizers are now looking to expand into more area schools by encouraging girls experienced in the program to return as peer mentors.
“We would be empowering them and helping them share their knowledge with their peers,” said Rose Anderson. “It would be more active than us standing up there talking about it.”
Eureka! and Coding at Club
Meanwhile, Erika Ross and Rachel Hurley are keeping themselves busy this summer with programs of their own to help inspire middle schoolers to learn to code. The two are the co-directors of outreach for Women in Science and Engineering Research (WiSER) and are connected with Eureka!, a program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities that is part of Girls, Inc.
Ross and Hurley planned an event on June 22 where a group of 50 girls aged 12-14 came down to tour Mayo Clinic.
“Eureka! reached out to us about seven or eight months ago and they were just really interested in exposing these girls to what’s really going on at Mayo,” said Ross. “They are going to tour a couple different labs and see a couple aspects of biomedical engineering, maybe a zebra fish lab and a biomechanics lab. We’re also doing a panel of women at at various stages of their careers in science.”
The goal of the day was to show the girls the different successful faces they can associate with careers in science, and to inspire them about all the possibilities that await.
“A lot of times, science is not something middle schoolers are exposed to in a diverse way,” said Hurley. “With us you can work with zebra fish or robotics or imaging.”
Around the same time, Ross and Hurley kicked off their first-ever summer coding class at the Rochester Boys & Girls Club, Coding at Club. Unlike Technovation and Eureka!, the class is not aimed squarely at girls.
Hurley made the point that they shouldn’t be emphasizing the barrier that society has placed against girls in technology in the past.
“We want to encourage them to succeed and share with them why it’s awesome that they’re able to,” said Hurley. “We were very intentional to make it something that we hoped from the outset would be inviting for middle school girls to come and join.”
The course is a progressive look at coding for youth and is eight weeks long. Ross described one of the first concepts they were going to look at: storyboarding.
“Rachel had this idea where we’re going to have the kids instruct one of us to build a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” said Ross. “When you say ‘Put the peanut butter on the bread’, I interpret that as, if I’m literally following the instructions, that I should take the jar of peanut butter and put it on top of the bread. You have to be very specific about the instructions you’re giving the computer because it’s not going to have context.
"From there, we’ll move onto Legos, having the kids get into groups and build something based off instructions from other groups. Then we’ll start applying what we learned into a basic module in the AppInventor program.”
Once the kids get into the program, they can take what they’ve learned and be creative. Hurley and Ross intend to keep it fun and engaging, a kind of play, while also approachable.
“We want to bring it to life for them,” said Hurley.
The Biomedical Engineering Society of Southeast Minnesota has several events in the works to encourage girls in STEM in the upcoming school year.
“We have begun facilitating placement of high school students in research internships in biomedical engineering and physiology laboratories at Mayo,” said Christina Webber, president of the local chapter.
“Also, we have partnered with a student organization, Brainwaves, to put on a visit to Washington Elementary School, at least once each academic year. We provide a hands-on station using an electromyography setup that allows the students to watch muscle reactions to different stimuli in real time.”
The need for skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math continues to increase rapidly in the modern economy. However, according to the federal government, there are not enough educators or students in the U.S. pursuing careers in those fields to meet the demand.
In response, the government has teamed up with the private sector to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into STEM training. You can learn more about those efforts on the U.S. Department of Education's website.
About Brita Moore: Brita is a native of Seattle and moved to Rochester in 2015. She works as a freelance journalist and plays the cello in various groups around town. In her spare time, you will find her making jewelry or cheering on the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and Storm from afar. Twitter.
(Cover photo: Getty Images)