Technical.ly Pittsburgh Diversity in technology requires a diverse technology pipeline. Pittsburgh Youth Programs Address Gaps in Opportunity

Molly Urbina did not want to join Girls of Steel.

“I was very opposed,” she said of the youth robotics team, which her mother had suggested she join in 2012. “I was like, I don’t want to go. not going to do robotics.

But she did, and by the end of her freshman year, she knew she wanted to pursue engineering studies in college. She is now a mechanical engineer in Lawrenceville IAM robotics.

Over the past decade, youth-focused pathways in Pittsburgh’s tech industry have become more mainstream, with courses in public and private schools aimed at providing students with early experiences in coding, 3D modeling. and other skills. But resources and funding for schools may be limited, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to present basic distance learning challenges. So other Pittsburgh youth organizations in STEM are sticking around to pick up the slack.

The hope is that early exposure to STEM will lead to an increased likelihood of entering the field later – and a more diverse pipeline for a predominantly white and male industry. By giving more students the chance to have hands-on experiences in robotics or coding or other STEM disciplines, the programs not only expand young people’s ideas about what a career in tech might look like, but create a stronger local talent pool for the huge volume of unfilled tech jobs.

One of these programs is Girls of Steel, founded in 2010 from Carnegie Mellon University Field robotics center.

“The vision I had was to get more girls to engage in robotics”, co-founder Patti Rote Recount Technically. She started the first program with the help of a co-founder George kantor, teacher-researcher at CMU Robotics Institute. What started as an idea to form a team to enter FIRST Robotics competitions and challenges quickly became a chance to create a community of mentoring and support. While the first cohort numbered just over 20 high school students, Rote said that “in two years we’ve seen something else – that we can develop this and involve more kids and teach them other skills, there. So it’s not just about building a robot. . “

Girls of Steel team member at work in February 2020 (Courtesy photo)

Soon, Girls of Steel expanded to offer co-ed programs for elementary school students and set up mentoring for the younger students on the high school team. After one of the Girls of Steel teams first qualified for the world championship competition in 2011, “it seemed like people wanted to know what we were doing,” said Therese Richards, the manager of the Girls of Steel outreach program. The success of this first year brought attention to the program, which drew students from over 20 different schools, including public, private, cyber and homeschool options.

And there are signs that Girls of Steel’s approach is working. The program reports a high school graduation rate of 100% and a post-secondary attendance rate of 100%. This may not be noticeable because girls who choose to participate in such a program are probably more inclined to study. But what is notable? That 80% of alumni specialize or work in a field related to STEM.

Pragna Mannam is another graduate who entered STEM. Now pursuing his doctorate. in robotics at CMU, she joined Girls of Steel in high school in the first year of the program. She had attended STEM camps and other programs in elementary school before, “but my first real exposure to robotics was Girls of Steel,” she said. “I really liked the interdisciplinary aspect of it, working on software and hardware.”

She then studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at CMU, followed by a master’s degree in robotics at university after volunteering in robotics labs. But Mannam credits Girls of Steel with the initial inspiration to pursue a career in the field and remains in touch with the organization and other alumni today.

Molly Urbina. (Photo via LinkedIn)

For Urbina of IAM Robotics, competing with Girls of Steel allowed her to see the potential end results of working in STEM beyond class, which has helped her see beyond some of the more difficult classes. for his diploma.

“One thing that got me going to college was, ‘I know this class is horrible. I know I’m not doing so well, ”she said. “But I know I love the end result, so I’m going to keep getting there.”

Since Mannam and Urbina were part of the program, Girls of Steel has grown to the point that it now often receives more applications than it can accommodate, which means some students are turned down. And while the organization benefits from some grants, sponsorships, and other donations, there may be a barrier to entry via a participation fee for students (although this has been eliminated for the 2020-2021 season). Time spent outside of school to participate can also be a barrier for some.

But Girls of Steel is far from the only option for students interested in robotics or STEM. The organization is part of Repeat the apprenticeship, a network established in Pittsburgh in 2007 to bring together people and institutions to foster collaborations in innovative education.

“In the early days of Remake Learning, there were really only organizations coming together and sharing what they were working on, in terms of educational innovation,” said the director. Tyler samstag. “And Remake Learning has kind of thrived and reached over 1,200 people, projects and organizations.”

Samstag, who also works as director of educational innovation for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, supports local school districts in establishing computer science curricula.

“The main thing to highlight is that the availability of computers has increased dramatically in schools over the past five years,” he said, pointing to programs like the PAsmart initiative and other funding sources that have supported new computer or STEM courses in area school districts from kindergarten through high school.

Tyler Samstag. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The number of extracurricular opportunities like Girls of Steel has also grown over the past decade, with such programs becoming common in places like the Boys and Girls Clubs. And for many of these initiatives, Samstag said, fairness is central.

Despite Pittsburgh’s technological prowess, the local industry is sorely lacking in diversity, with a workforce that does not reflect the city’s population. These shortcomings have important consequences. Earlier this month, Technically released local data on top earners from 2009 to 2019, indicating that while technology is generating new wealth in Pittsburgh, it only does so for certain populations.

Part of the solution to this gap will come from increased accessibility in the pathways to technology, but Samstag notes that youth organizations alone cannot solve all of the problems behind these income inequalities.

“This is a huge challenge, and if we are to address it, it will not be one organization, and it will have to be different organizations that will come together,” he said, adding that prioritizing equity in these communities is one of the main goals of Remake Learning. goals.

This goal is shared by Rec2Tech, a City of Pittsburgh initiative in collaboration with City of Baltimore and the Foundation of the digital port making recreation centers a destination for STEM and technology education.

Max Dennison of Rec2Tech sees a two-pronged problem for youth access to the tech industry: opportunity and exposure.

“We do not close our doors to anyone”, said the coordinator of Rec2Tech Max Dennison. “But I would say that 80-90% of the students we serve, both in person and online, come from some type of public school, and they usually attend one of our recreation centers.”

Dennison sees a two-pronged problem for youth access to the tech industry: opportunity and exposure. He considers the latter as the one that Rec2Tech can best tackle. Often at panels or community meetings he attends, he notes that “the average person doesn’t know what it means to code, or what it means to program, or what computing is or what intelligence is. artificial, ”he said. And that’s a problem, given that these are some of the driving forces behind Pittsburgh’s technology.

By providing free and easily accessible technical education at recreation centers, coupled with mentoring programs and regular discussions with adults working in the tech field, Dennison hopes students will become more aware of the possibilities in the field. . But, like other community leaders, he thinks there should be more to do to involve people from all walks of life in the field. Awareness of education and career paths should be constant, he said, as the need for these skills will soon be pervasive in the global economy.

For Pittsburgh, he wants to see this recognition of technology achieve local sporting fame.

“It’s just going to dominate the way we live,” he said. “So while there are some really good programs now, and I salute everyone who works tirelessly to make this a standard – until it’s as normal as we are talking about the Steelers, we still have work to do.” to do. “

Girls of Steel team members at work in February 2020 (Courtesy photo)


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of the Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.

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