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Challenges and Opportunities for Girls and Women in STEM

Challenges and Opportunities for Girls and Women in STEM

ACI is planning to host its third Coding for Girls camp in Omaha on July 15th—a free day-long event to teach middle school girls about coding and programs like HTML, CSS and Java, hosted by the Peter Kiewit Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). As we gear up for our next camp, we sat down with Deepak Khazanchi, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at UNO College of Information Science & Technology (IS&T) along with Shelley Ahlers, ACI’s SVP of Software Engineering, to get a deeper picture around the challenges and opportunities for women and girls in Coding and STEM fields.

  1. ACI will be convening our third Coding for Girls camp this weekend; what do you think is different today from last year in terms of opportunities for girls to get involved in coding? Have there been any noticeable changes since last year?

    Deepak Khazanchi: Making sure everyone feels that they have a place in the IT landscape is a priority for our college. We launched the Women in IT Initiatives nearly five years ago and we are already seeing promising results, particularly with regards to our CodeCrush Immersion Experience for 8th and 9th grade girls. We’re looking forward to our CodeCrush Summer Summit on July 25-26. There is indeed a renaissance in the interest of young girls in iSTEM, but a lot more needs to be done—and done well.

    Shelley Ahlers: There is certainly an increased awareness around the gender gap in STEM, not only with parents, but also within the educational system and among technology companies, including ACI. This increased awareness is creating even more opportunities for girls interested in coding. Girls also have more information available to them online than ever before—and based on the high attendance rates at ACI’s Coding for Girls Camps, many of them are taking advantage of what’s out there and already have an impressive base level of knowledge when they start camp. 
  2. What else can girls do to get involved in STEM?

    DK: Nearly 250 girls and their teachers have participated in our CodeCrush program since its inception four years ago—and as a result, over 1/3 of eligible students from our first class chose to continue their STEM studies with programs at UNO. Nearly 45% of the girls applying to our program are from rural towns and a similar number report participating in reduced lunch programs. We believe that our efforts are on the cusp of making a major impact on the number of girls seeking IT-oriented academic degrees. One of the reasons our programs are highly successful is because we offer IT programs that go beyond the traditional “coding” mindset. Participants learn about an array of IT topics including, bioinformatics, IT innovation, information management, mobile apps, UI design, robotics, 3D modeling and printing—and much more.

    SA: The most important thing I share with young girls and their parents is to take a STEM-weighted curriculum as early as possible in middle school and high school, so their options aren’t limited before they even get to college. I’m also a strong believer in part-time employment for high-school students, as it is a great avenue to develop new interests and skills—and most importantly, for girls to see first-hand what is possible.   My decision to pursue Computer Science as a college major was based on a terrific experience at a part-time job at a Payments & Technology company my senior year of high school.
  3. What are some related challenges and opportunities that you are seeing related to women launching STEM-related careers?

    DK: Although we’ve made great strides in the past few years, some challenges for women in STEM include the lack of exposure to the diversity and variety of the IT profession and academic discipline. In addition, girls need to have role models and champions in their own schools; this means educating teachers and counselors about the range of IT careers and the potential for girls to succeed in them—without pigeon-holing them into specific areas early in their academic life. Finally, the IT workforce deficit is a national problem and having more women in the IT field is an imperative, especially given that 51% of all college students are women and 54% of the current workforce is comprised of women.

    SA: We need to provide girls with a broader perspective on what a STEM-related career can really mean, not only from a career progression perspective, but also a lifestyle perspective, including financial benefits and flexible work arrangements. A combination of a STEM and business curriculum provides optimal career opportunity, flexibility and sustainability for girls and women preparing for a long-term career in the global economy.