Digital Divas Connects Girls to STEM

Digital Divas Connects Girls to STEM

digital divasNorthwestern University's Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) knows the value of creating supportive learning spaces, both on and offline. Her work on education ecosystems blends technical platforms and social relationships to create welcoming environments for young girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Pinkard’s Digital Youth Divas program offers local girls the chance to participate in STEM activities beginning in fourth grade; the outcomes are tracked through high school. “Data tells us that girls do not engage in computer science,” she says. “If a middle school girl is not participating in STEM activities, like robotics or coding club, regardless of how she does academically she won’t decide to pursue a STEM major in college.”

The free program brings together more than 60 “divas” on Saturdays, where they socialize, learn, and work on projects that include coding and 3-D design. Older girls and young women—Evanston Township High School students and Northwestern undergraduate STEM majors—mentor the younger girls. 

“We know that in order to increase the pipeline, we have to target girls who don’t think STEM is their cup of tea,” says Pinkard, faculty director of Northwestern's Office of Community Education Partnerships in the School of Education and Social Policy. 

“If we create places that are inviting, they may discover an interest," she says. "Our goal is to create an ecosystem of engaging programs for girls in general, but particularly girls of color, so they don’t feel they have to choose between STEM activities and activities with friends.”

With National Science Foundation funding, Pinkard’s team will study what happens once girls enter high school five years after starting in the program. “Are they more likely to enroll in STEM courses? We believe our program’s evidence of success should show up with more girls taking computer science and engineering courses at ETHS—that’s our first sign of impact,” she says. The program’s first cohort is now in sixth grade.

“Technology is not going anywhere—we’re going to be using it in all aspects of our lives,” Pinkard adds, noting that smart appliances are increasingly important to how we engage at home. “That means we need women to also design technology. It’s not just about equal numbers—you need people personally connected to what they are using. There is a need to have all genders, races, and socioeconomic statuses as part of the tech community.”

Digital Youth Divas is currently housed at Evanston’s Family Focus; Pinkard is working with Northwestern’s neighborhood and community relations office and the city to expand the program to the new Robert Crown Community Center.

Pinkard says the uniqueness of the Divas mentoring model is allowing girls to see someone taking the next step: “Everyone doesn’t need Steven Spielberg—if you’re making movies for the first time, you just need someone to show you that you can create something interesting. Women won’t go into STEM unless they have a history of solid success. Our model helps girls see that it’s doable.”

TO LEARN MORE and to enroll, digitalyouthnetwork.org/divas

By Office of Neighborhood Relations
Last Modified: 2/26/20