Austin high schooler seeks to get more women involved in STEM

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Local high schooler Akshara Anand believes ensuring gender diversity in STEM fields starts as early as middle school. 

Anand, a junior at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, recently started a computer science program called STEMInnovation. The program teaches female students at Burnet Middle School technical computer coding skills, such as how to create games, overcome coding challenges and program robots to perform specific tasks. 

“Middle school is a period of time where you start to slowly develop your interests,” Anand said. “Teaching computer science in middle school gets students enthusiastic and confident in their skills by the time they get to high school.” 

Anand said the STEMInnovation program allows these students to ask questions and be curious in a judgment-free and comfortable environment.

As a part of the program, each student is given an individual technical project to work on. 

“(These) range from learning Java to programming websites, and as a club we work on learning Python together,” Anand said.

Tricia Berry, director of UT’s Women in Engineering Program, who is not involved in the program, said she agrees with Anand that early engagement is key to getting more women involved in STEM. 

“The earlier we get girls charged up about STEM, the more likely we are to have diverse future leaders with the skills to address our world’s greatest challenges now and in the future,” Berry said. 

Club sponsor and LASA Science Department Chair Cynthia Whitney said STEMInnovation helps young girls overcome social pressures, such as eliminating socioeconomic barriers, that sometimes steer women away from jobs in STEM fields. 

Whitney said that most of program’s student participants are economically disadvantaged Hispanic and African-American young girls. 

“Many young women, by the time they have reached middle school, have decided through social pressures that computer science is not interesting and is only for boys,” Whitney said. “It is very difficult to recruit young women to the club because of the social stigmas they face, but once they attend they love it.” 

UT biomedical engineering freshman Julia Romero said it’s important to introduce women to STEM during their younger years.  

“Middle school is when you first form your ideas and interests about what you want to do when you grow up,” she said. 

Chemistry freshman Rachel Rapagnani echoed this sentiment.

“Early exposure is definitely important. Having a club specifically for girls shows these women that STEM is something they can pursue,” she said.

According to the school website, STEMInnovation currently meets on Thursdays after school. For now, the club is limited to the school; however, Anand said she hopes STEMInnovation will spread to other schools in the district.

UT students are welcome to volunteer. Anyone interested can contact Anand at womenincslasa@gmail.com.

“Volunteering with STEMInnovation is a great way to spread college students’ interest in computer science and engineering to young girls and foster the transition of closing the gender gap,” said Anand.

Anand said the most enjoyable part of working with the middle schoolers is seeing them grow.

“I’ve watched students who started with zero experience that are now able to create games,” she said. “It’s rewarding watching this progress and seeing the students really get excited about coding and STEM.”