A new pilot program aims to address the lack of women in technology fields by starting early—giving more middle school students a deeper knowledge of computing.
The AspireIT program, from the nonprofit National Center for Women & Information Technology, pairs female high school and college students with K12 education organizations, such as ISTE and The College Board, to run computing outreach programs for middle school girls. The first program launched in June.
“We’re building a wide funnel of girls who are being exposed and getting interested in technology before they get to high school,” says Ruthe Farmer, director of strategic initiatives at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. “So, when they do get there, they are intrigued enough to take computer science classes, and have a base of peers who might be in those classes with them.”
AspireIT is an extension of the center’s Aspirations in Computing development initiative, designed to provide leadership opportunities and scholarships to young women interested in technology. The 2,500 high school and college women involved can apply for a grant of $3,000 to $5,000 to go toward creating their own program for middle schoolers in their area.
So far, the program has awarded over $100,000 to 24 pilot programs. It is running in 15 states nationwide at more than 25 sites, including summer camps, after-school programs, clubs, and weekend workshops, reaching nearly 800 middle school girls with 25,000 hours of in-person instruction. In the next five years, the program is on track to serve more than 8,000 students a year.
According to today’s estimates, the U.S. education system will only fill about 30 percent of the 1.4 million new IT jobs that will be created by 2020. Women represent a major untapped resource for these positions: Though about half of AP calculus exams are taken by young women, women represent only 18 percent of college graduates in computer science—down from 37 percent in 1991.
Students in the program meet to teach the younger girls computing concepts such as programming, game design, and app development. Programs can range from eight hours in one weekend to 35 hours over several months. The high school and college students not only gain confidence through teaching technology, but they also get paid a small salary from the grant and have a tech job to put on their resumes, Farmer says.
“There is something unique about a woman in high school inviting a younger middle school girl to come into the field,” Farmer says. Because the two students are “near-peers,” the high schooler is an accessible role model for the middle schooler, she adds.
Further, the high school girls are often still connected to their middle school network, through relationships with teachers, friends, or siblings, and it is easier for them to reach out to that population than it would be for a college professor or other professional, Farmer says.
“We’re excited about the potential of enlisting this network of young women in high school and college to reach back and invite the next generation of girls into these courses and encourage them to explore technology,” she adds.
Young women in high school can also apply for the National Center for Women & Information Technology Award for Aspirations in Computing, from Sept. 15-Oct. 31, to receive prizes and scholarships for computing-related achievements and interests.
For more information on AspireIT, visit the National Center for Women & Information Technology website.