Women aren’t abundant in the computing and information technology fields. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows that while women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015, only 24 percent were STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. Minority women are even more underrepresented in science and engineering fields, largely due to a gap in educational attainment; a 2017 National Science Foundation report found that underrepresented minorities are less likely than whites and Asians to graduate from high school, enroll in college and earn a college degree.
STEM’s pervasive gender and racial gap is why in August 2016, Drexel University College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) alumna Ashli Smart launched Girls University, an after-school academy located in Florence, S.C. which focuses on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) for girls in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Smart, a 2013 graduate of CCI’s online MS in Information Systems degree program, decided to obtain a master's degree to gain a more comprehensive view of the field and advance her career.
She works full time as an applications development analyst at Sonoco, where she frequently finds herself surrounded by male colleagues in meetings. Despite her department employing over 150 analysts, Smart said that only a handful of them are women. Moreover, she said it’s often rare for anyone else at the table to be a minority as well, so Smart, who is African American, often feels like she sticks out even more.
In fact, Smart said she first had the idea for a program like Girls University when she entered the technology field, because she was one of a few women in her department.
Smart believes that it’s important that women who champion leadership and technology in the workforce also serve as mentors for young girls.
“[Girls] need to see people like themselves [in science] to encourage them,” Smart said. “I can’t remember, when I was growing up and going to school, ever having a female technology teacher. It was always a male, always a non-minority male.”
With 15 employees and around 20 current students, Girls University’s curriculum introduces girls to science using familiar, everyday objects, and teaches girls how to solve problems through project-based learning. Their students explore how chemistry is used to develop cosmetic lines, how engineering is used to build playhouses, how coding is similar to math principles, and how to tell a story through game design.
Girls University tries to introduce science to girls in a way they can relate to, so that concepts like science and math seem less scary, said Smart. Sometimes, she said, even if a girl understands science and math, she might not have the confidence to realize it.
“That’s the biggest component of what we do at Girls University — the confidence. The confidence and the exposure to STEM concepts,” Smart said. “Because if you don’t have confidence in yourself and your abilities, then you’re not going to be able to perform well. You’re not going to be able to grasp those concepts. You’re not going to be able to excel in your science, and your math, and your reading, and your social studies. You just won’t be able to get there.”
Learn more about Girls University at https://girls-university.com