LITTLE SILVER, NJ - The overwhelming need in this country for students of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is well known. However, the fields stubbornly still fail to attract an equal part of females to males. Recent statistics find that while women are entering medicine and even math, their numbers in college are woefully underrepresented in the fields of computer technology and engineering.
In his blog, Dr. Randy Olson, Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, states, “…data tells me that we don’t really have a STEM gender gap in the U.S.: we have an (Engineering & Technology) ET gender gap! This ET gender gap has severe consequences. Computer Science and Engineering majors have stagnated at less than 10% of all degrees conferred in the U.S. (for women) for the past decade, while the demand for employees with programming and engineering skills continue to outpace the supply every year.” (http://www.randalolson.com/2014/06/14/percentage-of-bachelors-degrees-conferred-to-women-by-major-1970-2012/)
Red Bank Regional High School (RBR) has operated a remarkable state-certified academy program in both Information Technology (AOIT) and Engineering (AOE) which students from all over Monmouth County attend. The AOIT has also developed a specialty in Cybersecurity yielding many regional, state and national accolades.
However, the RBR program reflects the national gender composition. Currently, only 23% of females compose the Academy of Engineering out of 92 students, while only 15% of females make up the AOIT of 102 students. The teachers of the academies have tried to address this gap in the past. Several years ago, AOIT teachers Mandy Galante and Jeremy Milonas made an appeal to the four RBR sending schools (Red Bank Primary and Charter, Little Silver and Shrewsbury) and were able to field a team to enter the national CyberPatriot competition. The results were amazing as two teams from Markham Place School in Little Silver won the 1st and 3rd place slots in the Middle School Division. One team was composed of girls and boys; a second was an all-girls team.
This year, with the aid of a grant from the RBR BUC Backer Foundation, Mrs. Alison Murphy, Math/AOIT Teacher, with the help of AOIT teacher Jeremy Milonas set-up a program “Girls Who Code” to entice young girls to consider the engineering and/or computer fields before they arrive in high school. The program began in October and continues to May with monthly meetings that run from 4 p to 6 pm. These middle school girls are divided into smaller groups and work with one or two RBR high school students who guide them through the exercises under the direction of Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Milonas. The teachers, as their students, volunteer their time. Expenses including the cost of OZObots (coding robots), t-shirts, certificates and dinner are funded from the BUC Backer grant.
The response has been amazing with over 30 students continue to attend each session.
Surveying the activities, Alison Murphy was quite pleased with what she observed as she walked about the many tables where young girls worked with individual computers provided from the RBR media center carts.
She stated, “We thought that getting them to experience STEM at an earlier age and with their friends would encourage more to go into these fields. It also helps out our own students who gain community service hours for the National Technical Honor Society.”
Ms. Murphy describes the code work in which the girls are engaged, as a variety of languages, mostly block languages. These include Scratch and Blockly. The work is inherently fun with the use of Lego robots and Ozobots. They are also creating Apps through App Inventor.
She adds, “The girls will also be learning a little bit of binary language and how a computer works. We may introduce them to HTML, Python or Java, depending on how the sessions go. The main focus is to generate interest in computer science and enlighten them on the possibilities and opportunities that computer science can provide.”
Getting more women interested in these fields is not just a benefit for females, but for the country as well since women compose more than 50% of our college graduates but, as previously stated, compose a small fraction of computing majors while the demand for employees in the field are great. According to Code.org, just in the state of New Jersey there are 22,365 open computing jobs and only 1,111 computer science graduates. Therefore, many open and well-paying jobs are going unfilled.
The girls were also introduced to a marvel of engineering, as Engineering/Math teacher Ashley Studd invited the girls to her classroom where the 3-D printer was busy turning out animal shaped cookie cutters. The students were mesmerized by the machine and passed around the finished product. Ms. Studd explained that her students conducted a poll of the district’s Little Buc preschoolers to learn what their favorite animals were. The engineering students then designed the prototypes that the girls were examining.
One of the RBR AOIT student volunteers, Corine Normandin of Brielle observed, “I volunteered because I wanted to get more kids involved. I feel it is a career field that needs a lot of girls, and this is a great way to do it. I think the program is going very well as they are having fun, are engaged and are getting the idea that this is very interesting and it is getting them excited about coding.”
Red Bank Boro Middle School Project Lead the Way Teacher Eric Swartz accompanied his students to the girls coding program. He brought along 11 girls, but had an interest of over 30 that wanted to take part. He selected the Red Bank Boro Middle School participants based on grade level and math scores.
He commented, “The girls are super excited. They love the projects they are working on. They are all fired up about it. It pairs very nicely with what I am doing in my classroom. This really gives them hands-on experience for the future. This is a great opportunity for them and they are seizing the moment.”
One of his students, eighth grader Jennifer Hernandez found the program very interesting and fun.
She stated, “This program is in a new form from what I learned in the past. It is really fun and I am planning on doing either technology or engineering in high school next year. Before this I was thinking of another academy but after doing this program I feel more connected to RBR,”
The program will be evaluated throughout the year based on the accomplishments the students achieve in programming through their activities, and, ultimately, on how many new female students the program attracts to the technical academies at RBR over the next few years. If Jennifer is any indication, they could be headed in the right direction.