Nevertheless: How to hold a girls tech career day

This November, Iowa Tech Chicks, an educational nonprofit in Iowa City, held its sixth Girls Tech Career Day. This technology-centric event offers approximately forty school girls (grades 5-8) the opportunity to learn about STEM careers through presentations from women in the field and hands-on activities.

Girls Tech Career Day Co-Chair Michelle Knedler has participated in planning and running the event since 2016. She started volunteering with Iowa Tech Chicks and quickly got involved with the organization’s annual career day, coming up with activities, organizing volunteers, and lining up partnerships and sponsors.

Below, Michelle, who is a product manager at Pearson by day, shares some words of advice for organizations that want to start holding their own tech career events.

Why girls only?

According to “Girls in IT: The Facts,” a report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, “Each year since 1999, the AP Computer Science exam consistently has had the lowest female percentage of any of the 37 AP exams, hovering at 19% or lower,” and one of the reasons girls are reluctant to take computer science classes is that they’re uncomfortable being the only females in a classroom full of their male peers.

The disproportionately low number of women in computer science trend continues into higher education and the workplace, creating a situation where even though, “Computing jobs are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying…few women are benefiting from these occupations.”

Some girls may need a nudge to consider computer sciences, and will feel more comfortable trying it with friends, so they won’t be the only girl in the class.

– Code.org

The report suggests that girls-only computer science educational opportunities are one way of combating negative peer influence early by providing girls with spaces where they feel supported and able to ask questions, mess-up, and try again.

Set goals

In order to gauge the success of your tech career day, you’ll need to clearly define your aspirations and expectations. Iowa Tech Chicks’s  2018 tech career day goals include the following:

  1. Give the girls a clear understanding of computer science and computer science careers.
  2. Challenge stereotypes about careers in technology, including that they’re tedious, not “people”/social jobs, really difficult, and not creative.
  3. Build up participants’ resilience and their confidence in their own technological abilities and knowledge.

Computer science is the study of all of the different ways computers can be used to make things easier, faster, or more fun.

– Girls Who Code

Debunk stereotypes

Ask a group of middle school girls what they think of when they think of people in technology and they’re going to tell you that it’s a bunch of guys staring at a computer screen all day working on things that they don’t find interesting. To have a successful tech career day, you have to show participants that

  • Technology careers are creative, social/people facing, meaningful, and diverse;
  • Lots of roles fall under the banner of tech careers, including developers, project managers, designers, artists, business analysts, data scientists, engineers, testers, product managers, etc;
  • And that technology can be paired up with their personal interests.

Make it interactive

Interspersing the day with activities will keep participants engaged and will help prevent information overload. At the Iowa Tech Chicks Career Day, we strive to provide the girls with a range of experiences that reflect their interests and are relevant to their lives right now.

  • Keep the activity session sizes small by rotating groups.
  • Determine if any of the sessions can be led by girls close to participants’ age groups. For example, we’ve had high school and college girls lead the Protect the Pringle activity (see below).
  • Most of all, don’t be afraid to challenge participants. You may be surprised by how capable they are.

Activity examples

Distracted driving simulation: Volunteers from the National Advanced Driving Simulator show the girls how technology can save lives. Tech Career Day participants get to drive simulators and learn firsthand about the dangers of distracted driving.

Protect the Pringle: This problem-solving activity asks the girls to create packaging for a single Pringle potato chip from simple, everyday materials. Their contraptions must protect the Pringle from damage during three secret tests: a fall, heavy weight, and submersion. The girls are given a chance to try again once they know the challenges their chips will face.

Robotics: Girls use Lego WeDo robotic kits to build and code a robot to perform a simple task.

Development life cycle: Participants work in groups to select a problem they want to solve. They then brainstorm potential engineering solutions to their problems, create wireframes to layout functionality, and develop pitches to explain their ideas to their peers. This activity is great for demonstrating how STEM careers require creativity.

This year’s ideas included “EZVote,” an app that allows citizens to vote online using facial recognition, and an online school platform that made learning more fun.

Reach out

Take advantage of the resources in your community to provide a unique experience for Career Day participants.

Partnerships: Iowa Tech Chick partnerships have led to field trips to local businesses and nonprofits (such as the Iowa City FabLab), a welding program at a local community college, a robotics workshop with a woman-owned business, and a mini med school session with students from the University of Iowa.

School districts: Coordinating efforts with your local school district can aid with Career Day preparation and execution. For example, the Iowa City Community School District has helped Iowa Tech Chicks by identifying girls to participate in Career Day and securing parent permission. This has enabled us to invite a diverse group of girls who have had limited exposure to the Career Day topics and technology. The School District has also helped us by providing free bus transportation on the day of the event.

Sponsors: Look for local business sponsors to help with the cost of the event. Iowa Tech Chick expenses were food (snacks and lunches), t-shirts, and items donated for goody bags.  Additional money helped buy materials and gadgets like Spheros and Kindles.

Volunteers/Mentors:Connect with volunteers through work, professional organizations, friends, etc. Invite women who are working in technology to give presentations and lead activities. Try to show as wide a range of industries and roles as you can.

Resources: Introduce Career Day participants to resources in their school and community, so that once you pique their interest in technology they have the means to keep exploring.

Get feedback & make improvements

Get the girls feedback on the activities so you can hone in on what worked well and what can be improved upon next time. We solicit feedback through surveys that we ask the girls to fill out and through conversations between participants and volunteers.

About the author

Michelle Knedler

Michelle Knedler earned a degree in computer science from the University of Northern Iowa and started working at Pearson as a developer in 1997. She is now a Pearson product manager, a teacher at Iowa City Fab Lab, and an avid maker.  Michelle is a member of several organizations that encourage women and girls to learn computer science.