Kimberly Scott ’91 knows that thousands of young women of color would love to tap into well-paying, fast-growing technology jobs. But she also knows that to do so, they must have a deep understanding of computational thinking: a distinct and methodical approach to problem solving.
Moving these young women from interest to action is no small task. Even as the opportunities for technology careers increase, girls and women of color lag behind. White men, for example, are nearly five times more likely to earn computer science degrees than women of color, even though research suggests that their initial interest in the topic is roughly equal.
As founder and executive director of CompuGirls, Scott has stepped forward to turn the tide and keep girls excited about high-tech careers. Through the program, Scott, an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, merged two of her passions. Academically, she had spent significant time researching underrepresented minorities in education. Separately, she’d developed a pilot “e-Troop” for the Girl Scouts. She saw opportunity in linking technology programs and underrepresented minorities, and CompuGirls was born. (The program’s manager is also an alumna, Sarah Shimchick ’98.)
The seven-year-old nonprofit, an ASU program with locations in Arizona and Colorado, has given more than 300 girls, ages 12 to 18, in-depth training in computational thinking through long-term projects that include filmmaking, podcasting and game design. Perhaps more important, their projects tackle real issues that affect their communities.
The White House has named Scott one of 10 “Champions of Change.” Here she talks about how to give girls the skills to succeed in technology.
We need to do more than give girls iPads and high-speed internet access. That’s not good enough—and not relevant enough—to make them feel engaged and technologically competent. Instead, we need to give them “mastery experiences,” where they create their own projects, like documentary films and virtual worlds. They need teachers and support. They need to learn how to innovate on their own.
Their work is phenomenal. One girl gathered and studied data on multiple myeloma, a type of cancer, in indigenous communities. She interviewed health-care providers. She explored rates of diagnosis and survival across populations. And then she created a video documentary and a museum-like virtual world to present her findings and recommendations.
We want them to become leaders. Through all of the different components of the program, we teach them that real leadership is also about learning about the politics of a group and understanding how to work within the system to make changes.
This program helps girls exercise their ability to take action and create change. Through mentorships, through internships, through guest speakers, we want girls to be able to see the path to success. We want them to say, “I can do it because I know the steps. I know the challenges. And I understand how the technology is used in that trajectory.”
We want these girls to make change within their communities. They’re learning to think critically about the collections of injustices they regularly experience, like racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not that we want that knowledge to be depressing; we want it to fuel them to do something about it.
I started out in art museums. I may end there. Early in my career, I worked at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian and the Museum for African Art in New York. Ultimately, I was drawn to classroom work, but I do hope to return to my art roots and collaborate with museums to offer CompuGirls there.
This story appears in the Fall ’14 Quarterly