Cisco invites girls to see their tech futures at US2020 event

While there has been a lot of hand-wringing and worry about how to get more kids — and more girls in particular — interested in technology, engineering, science and math careers, the answer seemed easy enough on Cisco Systems’ Silicon Valley campus today.

Let them tear a computer apart.

OK, it’s more complicated than that, but key to the networking giant’s kickoff of the White House initiative known as US2020 was giving middle school girls a hands-on experience with technology that can sometimes seem so in the clouds.

And as Sonia Ramos and Odaliz Lopez, of Ocala Middle School, tore into an old IBM tower with screw drivers, technology seemed very real. Cisco volunteers helped the girls and some of their classmates identify capacitors and heat sinks, hard drives and USB ports.

And maybe, just maybe, they helped them identify a career in the process.

The IBM dismantlers were among about five dozen girls from Ocala and ACE Charter middle schools, who descended on Cisco for a day of learning about the technological underpinnings of their everyday lives, while meeting real, live engineers and programmers (including, yes, women engineers and programmers).

The exercise was not rocket science. The girls, some of whom face the problems of poverty at home, need to see that there are people like them doing the jobs that statistics say will be among the most promising and profitable in years to come.

“A lot of the girls, they feel like these career options are not available to women,” says Serina Eichelberger, ACE’s lead science teacher, who was among those in a vast room at Cisco set up with technology stations and filled with some of the company’s brainiacs. “Being able to expose them to this early on, when they’re forming their identity; it’s just really good to be able to refer to a software engineer and hear the kids say, ‘Yeah, I might want to do that.”

The US2020 initiative, which I wrote about in April, has a distinctively Silicon Valley flavor, with Cisco and SanDisk as founding members. And that’s no accident.

As Dice points out, recent Labor Department statistics show that 15 of the fastest growing occupations are science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) jobs.

Valley tech companies, already scrambling for programming talent, will only see the problem of finding the right talent for the right job grow unless they join educators in taking on the challenge of training the 21st century’s workers.

Why the focus on girls? It turns out that they are being all but left out of the engineering and tech economy at a time when industry is screaming for a larger pool of potential workers. The latest National Science Foundation figures show that only 18 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in both computer science and engineering in 2010 went to women.

And while training more technologists and scientists is a national economic imperative, it is also a way to provide  today’s students with well-paying  jobs tomorrow. For girls, those fields could be particularly important, as jobs in computer science fields have among the lowest wage gaps between men and women.

But Linda Kekelis, of nonprofit Techbridge, which helped organize the Cisco event, says girls will never gravitate toward those jobs as long as they see programming as the domain of somebody “who is nerdy, male, scary.”

“They don’t have anyone to break that stereotype,” says Kekelis, whose organization runs science- and tech-centric after-school programs for girls. “They don’t know what’s available.”

At least now, a  handful of girls in Silicon Valley, have a much better idea. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some day, some of the girls in that room at Cisco, are building technology as enthusiastically as they were dismantling it today.

(Photo: Ocala middle schoolers Ashly Campuzano and Sonia Ramos watch classmate Odaliz Lopez attack a heat sink — by Mercury News Columnist Mike Cassidy)




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