Girls Just Want to Have Fun(damental) IT

Women in STEM, or the lack there of, is a hot topic these days. An increasing number of programs and not-for-profit efforts are aimed at increasing the number of women in STEM fields. An example of a school that is learning while leading this charge, is Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, Arizona.

Xavier is a Sisters of Charity, all girls, college bound, diocesan school. Forty percent of students attend Xavier on some form of scholarship. As a Sisters of Charity school, Xavier has a unique link to this country's computer science history. It was the Sister of Charity, Mary Kenneth Keller, who was the 1st person to get a PhD in Computer Science.

At Xavier College Prep, computer science has more than an historical connection, taking programming is a graduation requirement for students.

When art educator Frances McMahon Ward and computer science educator Catherine Wyman, read the study “Why so few?” by The American Association of University Women (AAUC) they decided to make a change. The study states that girls have an equal interest in tech as boys, but that interest drops by 9th grade. “If we are going to make a difference,” Wyman announced, “we need to do something in middle school.” Thus "Girls Have IT Day" was born. In collaboration with their high school girls, Wyman and her colleagues began offering technology outreach to middle school girls.

“We are big fans of Makey Makeys,” shares Catherine, “and we have used them in both our outreach to middle school girls through “Girls Have IT Day” and “Girls Have IT” camp. “Girls Have IT Day” happens on a Friday afternoon in March. Hundreds of middle school girls - mostly from Title 1 schools - are mentored by high school girls on fun STEAM topics. A thousand girls attend this conference model, designed and delivered by high school girls. Funded by a grant from the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation the “Girls Have IT Day” starts off with a guest speaker and then becomes a day full of hands on STEAM activities taught to the middle schoolers by teen peer mentors.

The “Girls Have IT” camp is one week in June featuring hands-on STEM activities designed, developed, and delivered by high school girls. "Girls Have IT" camp draws from 100 local schools. “We have the Arizona Department of Ed contact information for every middle school," explains Catherine Wyman, "so we sent an email and postcard to get the word out.”

Five years running, the tech camp week is the same cost as normal sports camps and scholarships are available. During the camp, Xavier Prep teens are the counselors. The camp director is an also alumna. “The alums are so innovative,” Wyman notes, “they come with great ideas and the near peer mentoring model really works.”

A final report available on the “Girls Have IT” programs shows that 66% program participation comes from Title I students. A post-event survey revealed that 92% of participants said they were inspired to work harder in school, 73% wanted more extra curricular STEAM activities, and 91% stated that “Girls Have IT” gave them the opportunity to explore more ideas.

Further evidence that the near peer girl focused model begun at Xavier works, comes from one of their alumna. Sarah Godbehere, now at Gonzaga University, has put together her own outreach program called “Girls Rock IT Day.” “They (Xavier alumni) are going out and starting social entrepreneurialism endeavours of their own.” Wyman reflects, “That’s how you know the peer mentoring system works, when you see women pay it forward.” Watch Sarah’s “Girls Rock IT Day” promo video below.