Excitement and curiosity fill a classroom at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Northwest Philly on a recent Saturday afternoon. Young girls with the group TechGirlz are learning game design with the software program Unity, a staple of game development today.
“There are very few game developers that are women,” said Ellen Fishman-Johnson, director of art and media at SCH, a private school with a commitment to innovation. She wears many hats at the school, but on this day she’s an instructor for TechGirlz, the nonprofit founded by tech scene veteran Tracey Welson-Rossman building STEM curriculum focused on young girls.
Fishman-Johnson says creating games “is something that women would find interesting. We might make different games actually if we started at this age than what’s are available commercially now. Starting girls early in this area is really, really, important.”
TechGirlz hopes to get middle school girls, ages 11 to 14, excited about technology before they tend to opt out of STEM courses around the 9th grade. It’s a conversation happening nationally but with no shortage of efforts locally. The Philadelphia Women in Tech Summit was an anchor of the fifth annual Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast and again sold out with more than 300 attendees, as did other women in tech focused events.
With the TechGirlz event, though, there isn’t discussion about philosophy, just action. Unity is one of the most widely used tools in game development and 3D modeling. Today’s program at SCH is an example of the TechGirlz TechShopz in a Box, an effort to create consistent and easily shared curriculum that makes in-person tech learning simpler and catered to young girls. The idea here is that the TechGirlz process can be more easily transported to a place like existing classrooms and nonprofits. It’s something like a franchise model, but without a cost.
TechGirlz founder Welson-Rossman said not long after launching the program, she was surprised to learn TechGirlz was one of the top providers of such offerings when searched for online. As she said at a recent panel, there is more awareness of women in tech, but there’s a need for more.
“We’re hoping to give them a little more confidence, a little more education,” said TechGirlz Program Director Karen Stellebotte. We want “the girls to feel more comfortable picking technology and engineering classes.”
Likely one nonprofit led mostly by volunteers won’t shape the future STEM workforce in Philadelphia or around the country, but many similar efforts might. If nothing else, creating the space for young girls has been an early success.
“It’s fun so far,” said Lindsey, one of the girls participating. She’s learning how to make landscapes, mountains and hills with Unity in the class. “I created a tree,” said another student, Victoria. She clicked on the drop down menu and hit 3D.
“I really think there’s going to be educational applications that are gamified. There are going to be more things we do at home that will be gamified,” said Fishman-Johnson, the SCH staffer. She believes games are a powerful teaching tool, a way to get people interested in something.
Just one in seven engineers are female, as Forbes has reported, and only 27 percent in 2011 of all computer science jobs were held by women. TechGirlz aims to close that gap by dispelling the stereotypes about programmers, often portrayed as geeky men in movies or TV. Fishman-Johnson believes learning games can be a starting point for girls.
“What they learned in terms of gaming is that they can do it,” she said. “Their only hurdle is their imagination.”-30-