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CompuGirls plants the seeds of STEM careers

Brianna Gonzales and Anel Hernandez (left to right), participants in the CompuGirls program, present their final project.

March 17, 2016

When Kimberly Scott worked as a teacher in a high-needs school district operated by the state education department, she had a hunch that her female students weren’t reaching their full potential. She decided to explore the issue further. 

“I completed this study looking at how girls were making sense of themselves in this highly politicized environment,” Scott said.  

Her findings suggested that girls weren’t receiving enough technology training in the classroom. In a world where computer skills are essential for success, Scott worried that her students would fall behind. She presented the results to her students, their parents and the school administrators, who all shared her concerns.

By happenstance, around the same time the Girl Scouts of America contacted Scott. They wanted her help in piloting an e-troop for girls who were physically unable to attend meetings in person. Scott is an avid proponent of the Girl Scouts, having been a member and troop leader herself. She saw an opportunity to address two needs — a lack of technology programming in her school, and an online e-troop for the Girl Scouts. She created a program called Teaching, Learning and Community. 

In 2006, Scott accepted a faculty position at Arizona State University and brought Teaching, Learning and Community with her. Collaborating with other ASU researchers, she revamped the program and renamed it CompuGirls.  

CompuGirls is a multimedia platform for girls aged 13-18 in underserved school districts that don’t have access to high-quality technology classes and resources. Since its inception, the program has helped more than 1,000 teenage girls increase their technical literacy and computational thinking skills. 

“The program encourages girls to become digital innovators,” said Scott, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. “The point is that they will learn these skills in order to advance their community.” 

CompuGirls also aims to address the lack of women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Women made up only 25 percent of the computer and math sciences workforce in the U.S., 15 percent of engineers, and 12 percent of the physicists and astronomers in 2012, according to the National Science Foundation. For African-American women, these numbers drop to 6.1 percent, 3.6 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. These are all below African-American women’s overall proportion in the workforce, which is 11 percent. 

According to Scott, girls — and especially girls of color — face low expectations from teachers and family. Schools often “code and treat” African-American girls as overly aggressive and sexual, Latina girls as destined for teen pregnancy, and Native American girls as future alcoholics. 

In addition, “computer science” is often interpreted as programming, which girls may perceive as boring. They don’t see how technology can be used to create, discover or solve a problem. 

“Unlike most technology programs, CompuGirls is very focused on having the girls identify and research a social or community issue that is important to them,” Scott said. “The technology becomes a means to that research, to analyze that issue and ultimately come up with and present a solution.” 

CompuGirls participants learn how to manipulate the latest technologies in digital media, game development and virtual worlds. In one project, two students collaborated to produce a short documentary on whaling. Other documentaries have explored issues such as teen pregnancy or bullying in school. The students learned how to use a video camera and several types of editing software.  

In other projects, students use an online platform called Scratch to program their own games. All CompuGirls students are also required to complete both quantitative and qualitative research components, and to make use of five to 10 external sources.  

With a grant from the NSF’s National Robotics Initiative, Scott and a team of researchers are expanding the CompuGirls curriculum to include a robotics plan. Participants will still research social issues and make presentations in their communities, but they will also be able to program a robot to co-teach with them. 

“We’re taking robotics to another edge and including in the offerings the idea of culture, identity and certainly social transformation — things that are not often discussed when we think about robotics, or programming for that matter,” Scott said. 

Currently, there are CompuGirls sites in Arizona and Colorado. Scott was recently awarded a scale-up grant from the NSF to develop more sites in California and beyond. Her team has published several research papers based on the program, and they’ve developed an instrument to measure its impact — the Culturally Responsive Computing Scale.  

Another indication of the program’s success is that Scott is starting to see CompuGirls graduates enrolling as students at ASU. One of them is Mitzi Vilchis, now a senior double-majoring in secondary education and English.

Vilchis joined CompuGirls when she was a freshman in high school. She says the program gave her a big boost in self-confidence. 

“There was an instance in high school where I was presenting, and as I was reading from the paper my hands started shaking because I was so nervous. My voice started quivering and I ended up crying,” Vilchis said.  

“In Compugirls we would do presentations all the time, and we did sandwich compliments,” she said, referring to a way of giving feedback that starts and ends on a positive note, with a constructive critique in the middle. “It was a very different environment. My confidence was through the roof by the time I got out of there.”  

After enrolling at ASU, Vilchis returned to CompuGirls as an undergraduate research assistant. She has also helped recruit new participants for the program. Before participating in CompuGirls, Vilchis hadn’t even planned to go to college.  

“Now my goal in life is to get the PhD, and I don’t see it any other way,” Vilchis said. “I think Compugirls and Dr. Scott’s guidance and mentoring had a lot to do with that.” 

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