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Study Aims to Track Career Choices of Staffers in Out-of-School STEM Programs

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Researchers at SRI International want to know if working in after-school and summer computer-science programs encourages young African-American women and Latinas to pursue careers in computer science or other STEM fields.

SRI is partnering with the California School-Age Consortium (CalSAC), in a two-year study to see if Build IT, a science and math curriculum created for Girls Inc., and ICT4me, a curriculum modeled on it, have a greater influence than other programs on career choices of after-school instructors working at middle school sites.

The research involves about 20 Girls Inc. programs across the country using Build It and another 20 programs in California implementing ICT4me. 

SRI and CalSAC are still seeking participants to complete a third group of out-of-school programs that offer other STEM instruction as long it's an organized curriculum that takes at least 20 hours to complete.  Interested after school organizations can apply online.

"What we know of the after-school field is that it's comprised of young professionals, folks still trying to figure out what they want to do," said Zak Parpia of CalSAC. "Our hope is that maybe we can figure out a little more and maybe be able to say that the after-school environment is a great way to develop a pipeline into great careers."

Even though technology jobs are among the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, the number of women majoring in computer science in college has been declining in recent years, down from 37 percent in 1985 to 18 percent in 2012, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. The percentage of jobs in the field held by African-American and Hispanic women is in the low single digits.

Girls Inc. is a nonprofit that runs after-school, weekend, and summer academic-enrichment programs for girls in low-income communities.  Build IT was designed to engage middle school girls attending those programs in technology and motivate them to take the math and science classes in high school necessary to get into college.

The Build IT curriculum also contains professional development training materials for the Girls Inc. staff, who don't necessarily have any background in STEM.  As it turned out, that component seemed to have a surprising side effect, said Melissa Koch, the creator of Build IT and the principal investigator on the SRI study.

"An unusual finding came up in the interviews we were doing and in follow-up conversations," recalled Koch.  "A couple of staff members reported that Build IT was influencing them to go into STEM education or even a STEM career. This was not our intention, but it was interesting."

Koch realized it had important implications for outreach efforts to diversify the tech industry because Build IT facilitators are "often 20-30 years olds from underrepresented populations making career decisions."

She and a colleague put together a larger and more formal survey.  The results, published in 2012 in the International Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology, found that more than 50 percent of the Girls Inc. educators said Build IT inspired them to go into computer science.

That's a lot, but it doesn't include people who didn't respond to the survey, said Koch.  With funding from the National Science Foundation, she designed a formal research project to compare several after-school STEM programs to find out if they all have the potential to get instructors excited about possible computer-science careers, or if the professional development materials embedded in Built In and ICT4me are what Koch calls the "secret sauce" that makes them unique.

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