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Teaching Girls How to Code through Technovation Challenge

Technovation Challenge is an afterschool program that is closing the gender gap in computer science by teaching girls how to code and how to be successful entrepreneurs. Angélica Torres, Senior Director of Technovation Challenge, describes how the program works and why it has succeeded in reaching more than 1,400 girls and young women who have programmed 287 mobile apps.
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Technovation Challenge is an afterschool program, hosted online, that is working to close the gender gap in computer science by teaching girls how to code and how to be successful entrepreneurs. Technovation Challenge is one of the core programs of Iridescent, whose largest funder is the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Iridescent was founded by Tara Chklovski in 2006. Its mission is to use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to develop persistent curiosity and to show that knowledge is empowering. Since its launch, Iridescent has helped more than 17,000 underserved children and parents through mentorship and hands-on programs with a team of more than 400 engineers and scientists. In this article I give a brief overview of the program’s history, our goals, and progress in the girls in tech movement.

I joined Iridescent shortly before Technovation Challenge’s third season. In 2012, I ran Technovation Challenge in New York City, where I co-taught the curriculum at Google to 50 girls. After moving our curriculum online, I oversaw our first global season..

Why Technovation

“Technology is nothing.  What’s important is that you have a faith in people… and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” –Steve Jobs

Despite the ubiquity and pervasive influence of technology in the modern world, only 13% of college-bound girls study Computer Science. While countries such as Estonia teach every first grader how to program, most girls in the United States complete high school without ever taking a computer programming class. Technovation Challenge aims to reverse this trend. Today’s girls are the next generation of entrepreneurs, and teaching them to program multiplies their power in the marketplace.

In Technovation Challenge, teams of 4-5 middle and high school girls identify a problem, invent an app to solve it, code the app, create a company to launch the app in the market, and finally pitch their plan to experts for funding—all in 12 weeks. Through this experience, girls realize that computer programming gives an individual, regardless of gender or age, the ability to make a difference in the lives of others.

The Program

Technovation Challenge is the world’s largest and longest-running tech competition for girls. The mobile app design and entrepreneurship program’s mission is to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers. The teams use MIT's App Inventor, a blocks-based programming language, to code the app. Girls learn about programming concepts such as events, variables, and databases while also learning about user-centered design, Lean Startup methodology, and market research through an open-source online curriculum hosted on Peer to Peer University (P2PU). For 12 weeks each spring, engineers and business professionals from technology companies including heavy hitters such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google, along with teachers from schools around the world, lead and mentor the girls through the Challenge. 

At the end of the program, teams pitch their product to regional judges, and finalists travel to the World Pitch event where they present their projects to a live audience and highly esteemed panel of experts. The winning team is awarded $10,000 in seed funding from Iridescent (sponsored by the Office of Naval Research), along with support to further develop their mobile app and take it to market.

Two winning apps are on currently the market for free—I.O.U. by Sparking APPles and MASH by Team ZEAL. StudiCafe by CoffeeBeans (a social network to help students study for AP exams) and Arrive (a school attendance check-in system with robot) by the Nightingale-Bamford School are currently in development.

Four Years, 1,400 Girls

Anuranjita Tewary, Ph.D., founded Technovation Challenge after she attended Startup Weekend;  Dr. Tewary wanted to offer girls the opportunity to start a company and become high-tech entrepreneurs early in their careers. She shared, “I want every girl and every woman to have that confidence that they can lead, that they can create something out of nothing.” Dr. Tewary partnered with Iridescent to pilot the first Technovation Challenge program.

Over the past four years, Technovation Challenge has served more than 1,400 young women who have programmed 287 mobile apps. Technovation Challenge began in 2010 in Mountain View, California and expanded to Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011 and 2012. The program went global for the first time in 2013, engaging over 600 girls from 25 U.S. states and countries, with finalists from as far as Brazil, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom.

Our Model

Through our program we have found that girls enjoy getting together with friends to create and solve problems when they have access to technology. The team approach in Technovation Challenge encourages girls to learn from each other—as a result, they expand exponentially in their creativity and problem-solving skills. A Hack Day hooks students into participating in  Technovation Challenge. Hack Days are hosted by schools, universities, tech companies, or other community organizations such as a YMCA. Girls can attend Hack Day as a team or simply as individual participants. In the day-long Hack Day, girls learn the basics of App Inventor, the programming language they will use to create apps in the Challenge, through fun tutorials in which they create apps such as Crystal Ball, Paint Pot, and Mole Mash. The tutorials build upon each other and encourage girls to break out and “hack” their own original twist on the apps. By the end of the day, girls are excited to keep going and participate in the 12-week program.

Our first model for Technovation was to bring girls to tech companies such as Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Intel, where they worked in teams with mentors for a couple of hours a week over nine weeks to create an app. The format made it convenient for mentors to participate at host companies, but was a challenging model to scale. In addition to having fewer spots available than willing participants, girls faced a challenge of traveling to companies from their schools. We moved the program to individual school sites (or afterschool sites) where teachers and youth directors could recruit girls and lead the program. Another benefit to bringing the program to youth settings has been that girls have started developing a culture of programming all the time, and not just when at tech companies.

The Value of Technovation Challenge—Project-Based Learning and Real-World Mentorship

In addition to teaching girls to code, Technovation Challenge promotes key professional skills that are rarely developed or tested in schools, including the ability to adapt quickly to new environments, to communicate effectively, to find creative solutions to problems, and to work collaboratively as part of a team. As Senior Director of Technovation Challenge at Iridescent, people are often surprised to find out I have a background in biological anthropology. My passion for engaging girls in tech through Technovation Challenge derives from having pursued an unorthodox career path—anthropology, like tech, is often glamorized through public figures in a way that makes it vaguely appealing yet inaccessible. I would not have majored, much less completed a Ph.D., in anthropology had I not benefited from transformative learning experiences outside of the classroom that challenged and inspired me. In addition to developing employable skills in students, I strongly believe that exposure through team projects and field experiences is essential to solving the problem of underrepresentation in STEM fields such as computer science.

In  my experience, great mentorship happens when someone makes the time and space to learn alongside you to create something new. Also, a mentee learns far more from watching how an expert learns than from passively receiving a sliver of their content expertise. I learned about biological anthropology in college when professors with expertise in other fields (archaeology and coral reef ecology) patiently helped me assemble reading lists and field experiences in which I devoured everything I could learn about primates, Neanderthals, and mitochondrial DNA.  When I mentored a classroom of kindergarteners as a National Science Foundation Graduate K-12 fellow, I armed myself with basketfuls of picture books about seeds and pillbugs as I unraveled the passions of a five-year-old biologist’s inquisitive mind and we designed experiments together. We learn the most when we learn together. I believe we are also more likely to become mentors ourselves if we have been mentored this way.

One of our goals in Technovation Challenge is to get girls and mentors to try something new together. Part of the success of using App Inventor as a platform for our program has been that few mentors enter our program as App Inventor experts. As a result, mentors and teams become partners in figuring out how to program apps using App Inventor. Additionally, the challenge is not to “learn App Inventor”—it is to create and pitch an original app. In this way, App Inventor is a tool in meeting the challenge and not an end in itself. By trying and succeeding at something that at first may have seemed intimidating, the girls are more likely to go on to explore other platforms and programming languages. We feel that they are also more likely to pursue internships and computer science courses. We have also had a few of the girls return to become mentors themselves.

Mentors benefit too. They appreciate networking with other women working in technology (95%), increasing their knowledge of entrepreneurship (83%), learning to be effective mentors (88%), and improving their technical skills (63%). Mentors are also often inspired to keep growing professionally after completing our program, for example by starting their own company. Many of our mentors return year after year to Technovation Challenge.

Through Technovation Challenge, we want girls to be confident innovators and creators. For us it often starts with girls looking at the phones in their pockets and realizing they can build an app to make a difference in their community. Their voices and perspectives are crucial to innovation in STEM.

For more articles and resources, visit our Women in Technology page.

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