ASU organization CompuGirls brings high-tech education to girls in under-resourced communities

Seven years after its conception, an ASU organization continues to challenge the concept of gender norms and is leading the crusade for gender and socio-economic diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

CompuGirls, whose founder and executive director is ASU professor Kimberly Scott, provides a learning environment for 13- to 18-year-old girls in under-resourced areas who wish to use technology as a platform for the dissemination of ideas about the progression of social justice in their community.

The CompuGirls organization gives them the opportunity to learn about technological concepts through a three-step program where they create a series of projects advocating a social issue in which they are interested.

“It’s not only about the manipulation of a computer," Scott said. "It is about creating relationships with individuals and things that will push a community forward. Technology is more than ‘It helps you type,’ or ‘It helps you print."

Scott used the words “techno-social change agents” to describe CompuGirls participants, and she said that through technology they would have the opportunity to convey ideas about contemporary issues and influence change in their communities.

The first step for girls involved in the program is to choose an issue they are passionate about advocating. Successive activities dictated by the program promote awareness of that issue through digital mediums.

The ways in which the girls promote awareness of their chosen issue include filming and editing a video documentary, designing an instructional video game or simulation and creating a virtual world in which to exhibit relevant information.

Scott recalled one 15-year-old girl who chose to raise awareness about the decline of Native American language and culture while she participated in CompuGirls.

She interviewed both tribal youth and tribal leaders while filming her video documentary, and in the process discovered that the older generation’s assumption of the youth’s disinterest in ancient tribal culture was misplaced, Scott said.

The girl created an interactive video game that taught users select words in her tribal language, and she included the game in the virtual museum space she later created.

Her virtual museum also exhibited a selection of Native American art pieces and relics.

“A lot of kids, when they are halfway though the program, can do far more than their teachers on the computer,” Scott said.

Scott said she is incapable of computer programming and manipulation at the same level as some girls who have graduated from the CompuGirls program.

This program, which has roots in Arizona and Colorado, can take a variety of shapes that depend on its time and location.

In Arizona, CompuGirls offers three possible sessions: a five-week summer session and two one-week sessions in the spring and in the fall, each of which lasts from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays at one of two locations on an ASU campus.

In either the Mercado building at the Downtown campus or the Community Service building at the Tempe campus, the girls are taught by paid staff members to manipulate advanced computer programs such as Scratch, a game-design program developed at MIT, and JokaydiaGrid, in which girls use open-sim technology to create virtual universes.

This program structure differs only slightly from the Denver program, where the same CompuGirls curriculum is taught as an eighth-period class at a local middle school.

Scott said she hopes young women involved in CompuGirls, no matter the location, will be inspired by the curriculum to pursue technology-related careers in which they will continue to promote social change.

The program has hired various guest speakers to help achieve this goal, including Miss Arizona Latina Brenda Soto, an engineering student at ASU.

Soto encouraged program participants at a recent CompuGirls event to redefine “STEMeotypes” by embracing their femininity simultaneously with an education in STEM-related fields.

Sarah Shimchick is CompuGirls' program manager.

“Using technology is a way to give girls a voice that enables them to discuss issues of significance to them and to their communities,” Shimchick said.

She emphasized the importance of a female presence in the technology industry and said a higher concentration of women in STEM fields was necessary in order to challenge gender stereotypes and promote ideas about feminism and self-confidence.

Chelsea Clinton, who was in Tempe for the Clinton Global Initiative University 2014 on Saturday, stressed the under-representation of women in STEM fields while addressing an audience of students in ASU’s Gammage Auditorium.

Women comprised just 16 percent of science, technology, engineering and math graduates in 2012, she said.

According to data provided by the National Math and Science Initiative, the statistical lack of gender diversity in the fields of STEM shows little improvement between college and post-graduation employment.

Although women constitute 48 percent of the overall workforce in the U.S., only 23 percent of those employed in STEM-related fields are women.

CompuGirls is in the process of conducting research concerning its own influence on the recruitment of women into the technology workforce.

To determine this, the organization employs graduate and undergraduate students who want research experience in assisting professional investigators with the collection and analysis of data related to the educational progression of past and current participants.

Secondary education sophomore Mitzi Vilchis is among CompuGirls’ undergraduate research assistants.

Her connection with the program goes far beyond simply analyzing data, however. She participated as a 15-year-old in 2007, during the program’s first year of operation.

Vilchis said the program made a lasting impact on her technological skillset, community awareness and sense of self-confidence.

She plans to continue to develop her relationship with computers and technology in the future as a college student and eventually as a high school teacher.

“I want to get a digital education certificate (in addition to my secondary education degree), and I want to use the knowledge I was given in CompuGirls in my classroom,” she said. “I think it’s very important.”

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @megannphillips

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