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April 1, 2019

TechSavvy Connects Girls to Technology

By Michelle Lange

TechSavvy was made for moments like this: A classroom of middle school girls adding features to some pre-written code to make a fully functioning game — and laughing their faces off over the results. “We need to look into programming!” Rhiannon said, fully earnest, to her friends J.D. and Kathy-Ann, all laughing so hard they could hardly breathe.


It’s in those moments of discovery that technology becomes meaningful, and that’s the goal of AAUW’s TechSavvy and groups like TechGirlz: To make technology and STEM careers a real possibility for girls and young women.


Girls coding


TechSavvy is a day of leadership workshops, STEM programs and information for parents of girls interested in careers in STEM fields like science, math and technology. At this year’s TechSavvy event in Chicago, girls scattered all over the Lewis University Science Building to play in specialized STEM workshops and learn about cybersecurity, drones and the physics of simple circuits. In other rooms, the activities included fun with polymers, learning wiring diagrams and making battery powered cars.


After all the workshops, the girls visited college booths and career booths to learn more about how to turn their interest in STEM into long-term careers. Simple demonstrations in electricity, binary code and heat conduction were another way to make technology meaningful, and hands on projects to break down big ideas.


Making Binary Bracelets with Creating IT Futures

Using beads to represent the on and off of binary code and a binary decoder key, kids and parents came through the Creating IT Futures booth to make binary bracelets, spelling their initials in code.


“People think you need a lot of math to get into tech. No. You need binary and logic. The machine does the rest of the work for you,” said Carrie Ruetschlin, part of TechSavvy’s planning committee. The dynamic day started with breakfast, went through lunch and ended with prizes at the end of the day. It came together thanks to dozens of volunteers, help from corporate sponsors and her organization, FlyTall. While the girls played with technology projects, the adults attended lectures like “New Brave World: Future Opportunities Unfolding for Girls in STEM” and “Women, Girls and Disruptive Technologies.” 


Making binary bracelets


Ruetschlin got into technology through an indirect path, earning a degree in math and then getting a job at an engineering firm. “I was watching the computer do the math, and I asked their consultant if I could see the code,” she said. “The president of the company caught me looking at the code, and he said, ‘I’ll teach you and I’ll send you for training,’ and that’s how I ended up in tech.”


Like TechGirlz, a nonprofit that fosters a love for technology in middle school girls, Ruetschlin’s mission is to build the pipeline of tech talent, and make sure there are plenty of girls and women who have high-end technology skills to build out the workforce.


She’s raised at least one tech savvy woman: her daughter Hailey helped organize volunteers and the College Corner of TechSavvy, and the mother and daughter team have put on many activities designed to help women in their careers. 


“There is a rising tide of girls who have an interest in tech and want to learn new skills with their friends, or to pursue it as a lucrative and empowering future career,” said TechGirlz CEO and founder Tracey Welson-Rossman. “It’s great when groups like TechGirlz and TechSavvy can work together like this.”


Like TechSavvy, TechGirlz is a nonprofit that fosters a love for technology in middle school girls. It was recently acquired by Creating IT Futures, the tech workforce charity of CompTIA. Get free, open source technology courses — like the Binary Bracelet from the TechSavvy event — to inspire curiosity, impart confidence and build community.


—Michelle Lange is a writer and designer who lives in Chicago.