If you were in the city during Philly Tech Week 2014 and had a view of the skyline, you probably saw the world’s largest videogame display taking place, with a game of Tetris being played on the Circa Centre. Frank Lee, PhD, a professor in the Drexel University Department of Digital Media and director of the university’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio, was the designer behind this larger-than-life gaming extravaganza, using the LEDs covering the 29-story skyscraper to create a 119,600 square foot screen.
This year, Lee and Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio are bringing that gaming innovation to Philadelphia’s classrooms. In an attempt to increase interest from younger students, especially middle school girls, towards STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) studies, Lee is giving more than a hundred middle-school students the opportunity to try their hand at being video game designers.
In December, the Entrepreneurial Game Studio in Drexel’s Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center, hosted the first of a series of five workshops for students from participating Philadelphia-area schools and community organizations. At these workshops, which will run through the fall of 2016, the students learn about the elements of game design and some of the basics of programming.
This initiative comes from a desire to get more women involved in the tech industry by fixing the problems that erode interest in the first place.
“It seems to be that by the time the girls are in high school or college, there is a rapid drop off of their interest in technology and STEM in general,” Lee says. “There are fewer girls taking computer science AP (advanced placement) courses in high school, and certainly fewer girls going into computer science majors in college, and even fewer going into grad school and so on.”
The participants each produce a design concept, using the Cira Centre as their display template, which will have the chance to go into production and be featured on the skyscraper for live play next fall. The workshops are being funded by 100,000 dollar grant from Intel.
Lee founded the Entrepreneurial Game Studio in 2013 as a safe and encouraging environment for student game-design startups. The studio has worked with several community groups to seed interest in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, among the youth of Philadelphia.
One of those groups is TechGirlz, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to reducing the gender gap in technology occupations. TechGirlz, founded in 2010 by Tracey Welson-Rossman, runs free technology workshops for middle school girls to encourage them to pursue STEM education and, eventually, careers. While focused in Philadelphia, students from around the country utilize the online course material.
The organization has grown significantly over the last five years. Starting with around 75 students, more than 4,000 students are now enrolled in the program. A lot of those students, Welson-Rossman says, will be competing in Lee’s game design workshops.
“We’re going to have a pretty strong representation because my list of middle school girls is pretty large,” says Welson-Rossman.
Welson-Rossman, who is also the founder and chief marketing officer for software development firm Chariot Solutions, founded TechGirlz because of her personal experience in the tech community. Originally, she worked in retail and advertising and never noticed a discrepancy based on gender. When she entered the tech industry, however, she noticed a pretty stark difference, that women were not represented.
Research shows that at around ninth grade, girls begin self-selecting out of tech careers for a variety of reasons.
“The issues are sort of like an onion,” Welson-Rossman says. “You keep peeling the layers and there is still something else there.”
Representation is a key issue, according to Welson-Rossman, and how the media portrays tech experts.
“Probably the first word that comes up is nerd. Not many girls want to be known as a nerd: wearing a hoodie, being Goth, or looking like Sheldon Cooper. We are now putting it out there for a lot of these girls to understand that there’s a variety of people who work in the industry.”
Another aspect of the problem is a confusion of what the tech industry is. When many people – youth and adults alike – think of technology they only imagine thousands of lines of code.
“Technology has changed so much in the last ten years that it’s not just about that [coding] – that’s a piece of it, I’m not going to deny it – but you could be doing robotics, or game design, working on an entire network, or creating something that doesn’t even exist.”
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is getting parents and teachers to recognize the value of these skills.
“It’s about empowering our parents and our teachers to support these girls. These are really good opportunities for jobs… [But] if you’re a parent and you don’t know what a data scientist is, how can you recommend it as a career for your daughter?”
Getting parents to support their daughters to pursue STEM careers is part a longstanding problem of sexism in society. Welson-Rossman recalls encountering parent’s who, in light of their daughter’s growing interest in computers, are nervous that she is not sharing the same interests as her peers – a problem that would often not be thought of if it were a boy.
“I sort of imagine this like twenty years ago when a girl wanted to play soccer. She probably seemed not in the best light, but now it’s a great thing… As a culture, we label women that are smart in a different way than we label boys and men.”
While the program’s long-term goals are to tackle the serious issue of female underrepresentation in tech, for the students, each workshop provides challenging, yet fun, goals to accomplish.
Guin, 12, is a 6th grader that recently attended a TechGirlz workshop. She says, “My favorite part about the TechGirlz program is that the adults are helpful and willing to take the time to teach us what they know. I really enjoy designing websites.”
It is that type of excitement over learning that fuels community leaders like Tracey Welson-Rossman and Frank Lee. As a result of their initiative, a few of these young girls will be able to join the thousands of spectators looking up at the video games on the Circa Centre and think, “I made that.”
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