Verizon Program Aims to Boost Rural Girls’ STEM Skills

By Sarah Schwartz — June 30, 2017 5 min read
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Most kids come home from summer camp ready to show off their handiwork—maybe a friendship bracelet, or a tie-dye t-shirt.

But girls enrolled in some STEM summer programs across the country this year will be bringing home something else entirely—an ability to code.

Coding and computer science education initiatives are ever-increasing—just last week, the American Libraries Association and Google announced a competitive grant program to fund computer science instruction in libraries. But even as computer science courses take hold in more U.S. schools, the gender gap in those subjects persists. In an effort to lure more girls into STEM subjects and encourage them to pursue careers in those fields, organizations like Girls Who Code and Techbridge Girls run out-of-school-time and summer programs for middle and high school girls, some at little or no cost. These immersive experiences teach girls the basics of coding and design thinking, and often connect them with female mentors in the field.

Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation, is the latest player to join this group. This summer, Verizon has launched a free, three-week summer STEM program for girls in grades 6-8 in rural areas, designed to intervene in the critical middle school grades. The goal, said the Verizon Foundation’s director of education, Justina Nixon-Saintil, is to influence rural girls to pursue paths of study in high school and beyond that could lead them to careers in STEM fields.

There is a large, unmet need around education and training for STEM jobs in rural regions, said Nixon-Saintil.

“We know that, in certain areas, there are a lack of professionals that are going into advanced manufacturing and energy fields,” she said. These types of jobs are available and provide sustainable salaries—they’re one of the few expanding career options for students growing up in poor, rural areas, she said. But in order to get these jobs, students need to have tech skills.

“We really wanted to reach girls that are in need, that need these these type of skills to get them on the path to a better future,” she said.

The programs will introduce 250 girls in rural communities to augmented reality, coding, 3D design, entrepreneurship and design-thinking principles. As a culminating project, students will use an augmented reality interface and app to identify and solve a community problem related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—issues including poverty reduction, quality education, and peace and justice.

Five community colleges in Iowa, Virginia, and Tennessee are offering the program this summer, through Verizon’s partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.

The program is part of Verizon Innovative Learning’s #weneedmore campaign, a broader initiative to introduce more students to STEM skills and prepare them for careers in those fields.

First-Time Coders

Partnering with community colleges makes the program easier for rural girls to access, as rural areas are more likely to be served by a community college than a four-year university, said Nixon-Saintil. College faculty and staff, trained with materials provided by Verizon, will teach the three-week program.

The program at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Iowa, the first of the five sites to start this summer, is in its final week (the rest of the programs start mid-July). The program was “extremely intense” for the middle school girls enrolled, but rewarding, said Christina Brandon, the project lead at the college.

Girls at WITCC learned the basics of coding and used apps, including Morphi, CoSpaces and Aurasma, to craft 3D models and augmented reality experiences, said Brandon. They also took lessons on social entrepreneurship, which they used to develop a branding and marketing plan for the 3D products they developed. Girls worked in groups come up with design ideas, which included a bracelet with language translation capabilities and a fidget spinner charger that powers phone batteries.

While some girls had a little experience with entrepreneurship or coding from school, many were tackling the subjects for the first time, said Brandon.

“They have kind of a different mindset of it now,” she said. “Lots of them were like, maybe I could do that.”

Verizon’s mentorship efforts, an intentional component of the program, also encouraged the students, said Brandon. Female employees from Verizon connected with the girls in webinars and recorded messages, and one woman from the company spoke to the girls at WITCC on the program’s first day. The introduction to women working in STEM fields, said Brandon, “really brought attention” to possible career options for the girls.

With the girls’ final project of the course focused on community improvement, said Nixon-Saintil, Verizon Innovative Learning is encouraging girls to see STEM as relevant to their world.

“Girls are really interested, not if you just give them a generic problem to solve, but if you ask them to look around them,” she said. “Find a challenge that they can solve around them that makes the world a better place, and then be able to showcase that idea.”

At WITCC, students used iMovie and the augmented reality apps to create short documentaries about each of the different UN goals. The girls explored the consequences of not addressing these issues, and explained how taking action toward these goals could change their communities, said Brandon.

At the end of the summer, the girls at WITCC and the other programs will get to take home a tablet, provided for free, to continue work on their final projects and participate in monthly virtual courses.

WITCC’s program wasn’t able to cover the entire coding curriculum over three weeks, said Brandon, and was only able to “touch the surface” of 3D printing. She plans to continue working with the girls on these subjects in the continuing virtual courses.

For this summer, the 50-seat programs each of the five colleges are all full, with waiting lists. Nixon-Saintil voiced her desire for the program to expand and serve more girls in the coming years.

Photo: (Left to right) Yousra Bensouda and Ibtihal Aboussad of Morocco, and Natalie Aziz of Egypt laugh with an iD Tech counselor, left of center, during the iD Tech camp as part of the TechGirls program at American University. Bensouda, Aboussad, and Aziz were working on computer projects that aim to improve their technology literacy skills. --Deanna Del Ciello for Education Week-File.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the organization leading the effort to promote STEM education. It is Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.