How to get tweens to love tech

August 8, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
Carleigh Meyer -- IBM

Sarah van Kralingen is about to start her junior year at New Jersey’s Peddie School and recently spent four days counseling middle school girls at IBM’s annual Girls Go TechKnow Camp. Sarah’s interest in technology doesn’t fall far from the tree: Mom Bridget van Kralingen is SVP of Global Business Services at Big Blue—and one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business. Here, Sarah shares her take on why STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects intimidate young women and what to do to encourage girls to embrace learning about science and math and technology.

During our kickoff session at IBM’s Girls Go TechKnow Camp this summer, Natalie* struck me as one of the most boisterous, outgoing attendees. The four-day program at IBM’s (IBM) T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, teaches seventh- and eighth-grade students about electronics and computer science. Natalie stood out among the 32 campers. She cracked jokes and chatted easily with her peers—until the real work started.

No sooner did she hear the words polymer composition—the subject of our first module—that her fiery personality disappeared. She avoided eye contact when the professor asked her questions; she was silent as her fellow campers shared problem-solving techniques. I couldn’t tell whether Natalie was uncomfortable with the program or, like too many 13-year-old girls, afraid to show her enthusiasm for math.

Natalie’s reticence worried me. Her home isn’t filled with rocket scientists: Her mom works fulltime at Wal-Mart (WMT) and she never mentioned her dad. Natalie is one of the smartest girls at her school—but I’d been told that if she didn’t continue working hard academically, she could be destined for gang life.

Yet Natalie’s lack of confidence didn’t really surprise me. As one of the camp’s four counselors, I imagined myself in their place—being in middle school and having my mom and dad sit me on the couch and say, “Now Sarah, you’re going to go to science camp for a week at the world’s nerdiest corporation in the middle of nowhere.” My 13-year-old self would laugh and then demand to be relieved of this awful experience immediately.

Girls Go TechKnow slowly eased Natalie out of her shell. Most of the other campers threw themselves into the program, and Natalie quietly observed their enthusiasm. By the end of the first day, she spent Intro to Robotics happily testing her electronic LEGO robot. By the end of the four days, she went from providing no input at all to leading her group of eight campers – and proudly showing off math skills that greatly impressed the camp counselors.

Not all environments are so welcoming to young girls interested in STEM. I’m 16, a rising high school junior. I like math and science—so much so that I doubled up on them in school this year. I don’t mind telling friends about my favorite subjects, but their reactions are often the same: “That’s weird.” Social pressures weave their way into females’ passion for science, convincing girls that they’re not “good enough” or “smart enough” to be engineers or scientists.

Pressure from parents, peers, educators and media further sway girls to believe that being good at math and science isn’t cool, and girls should pursue softer subjects because engineering is for big, tough men. I can honestly say IBM is the first place in the world where I told people that I wanted to be an engineer and nobody scrunched their nose at me.

So, what happens to these girls once they leave Girls Go TechKnow’s supportive environment? The camp’s been around for 11 years, hosted more than 300 girls and enabled them to push past social pressures and pursue their interests. But Girls Go TechKnow is a tiny solution to a huge problem: Only 18% of computer science degrees awarded to graduates of U.S. colleges go to women. For the sake of my campers’ (and my) future, I hope programs like this one proliferate and help inspire the next generation of female technologists.

*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the camper.

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