We are immersed daily in technology, whether we’re texting a friend, cheering on a sports team from the living room couch or watching an animated film at the movie theater. As a result, technology-related careers are on the rise. Yet the field continues to significantly lack the presence of women. Russell Fraenkel with Advance IT Minnesota and Marty Hebig of Maverick Software Consulting are among a team of individuals who decided to help change the way women perceive technology-based careers. For the second year, Fraenkel and Hebig have served on the award committee to honor 15 high school-age girls with awards from Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing. “Intuitively we just knew there was a great need for this,” Fraenkel says. There was lots of interest and community support for it.”
Edina resident and Breck School graduate Julia Joern was among this year’s runners-up for this award. Joern says a technology career has always been on her radar, and she finds the field of engineering the most intriguing. She took engineering classes in high school and competed at nationals with the school robotics team. Joern’s interest in science heightened when she participated in Breck’s advanced science research program in 2013. “I loved it; that was a defining moment,” she says. She and a partner developed an automated solar hydronics project, a unique method of residential climate control that relies solely on solar energy. They received the 3M Renewable Energy Award and were invited to present their research to several 3M inventors who have obtained patents. Joern will head to Columbia University this fall, with hopes of pursuing a career in biomedical engineering and eventually teaching. Her interest, and the encouragement of one of her teachers, are what led her to apply for the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Award.
Hebig believes that when young girls are discovering their interests and choosing their potential job paths, technology careers often get ruled out. “Part of the issue is that young women aren’t getting the right [technology] messages. They aren’t receiving the right kind of encouragement that culturally happens more naturally for men,” Fraenkel says.
This award sets out to change that. Judges are searching for initiative, celebrating out-of-the-box thinking and looking for a basic knowledge of computing skills. This year, the panel chose six winners and seven runners-up, with winners moving on to the national level. All received a scholarship and the opportunity to shadow a woman working in a technology-related field through Women Leading in Technology, a group dedicated to inspiring young women. The award is making a difference, but high school technology classes are still seeing low levels of female participation.
For instance, Joern was one of only two girls in her engineering class at Breck. It’s similar at Edina High School, where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers Tim McManus, Jodi Ramirez, Nancy Johnson and Ward Jensen say they hope it will one day change. Although Edina High School is a participant in Project Lead the Way (PTLW), with a relationship with state universities to offer college credit for STEM classes, males still drastically outnumber female students. Ramirez, who is also a licensed engineer, says she had only 31 girls out of a total of 138 students in five engineering classes last spring.
These teachers believe women offer a different and valued perspective. “When you are trying to solve a problem or are working on a project, the more perspectives you bring to the table, the better solutions you can come up with,” Jensen says. Employers see this, too, so the opportunities are broad for women, if they are able to overcome the intimidation factor.
To overcome that hurdle, Hebig advises students utilize online resources. Fraenkel encourages female students to say ‘yes’ to science opportunities. Jensen encourages girls to sign up for STEM classes. “Women have so many capabilities in this field, we tend to think differently,” Joern says. “I don’t think our full potential has been realized in engineering and technology.”
To learn more about PTLW and the STEM classes at Edina High School, visit edinaschools.org.
To learn about the Aspirations in Computing award, sponsored by the National Center for Women & IT, visit their website at aspirations.org.
Prizes include scholarships, tech devices such as tablets, cash awards, and mentorship/job shadowing opportunities.