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Why Techbridge?

Earlier this spring, I volunteered at an outreach event in a suburb of the Bay Area. I find participating as an engineering role model so rewarding as I see the spark of curiosity light in girls. One of my tried and true hands-on projects is reverse-engineering hairdryers. Literally, break ‘em to see how they make ‘em. Girls love it!

But sometimes I’m asked, why do outreach just with girls? There aren’t enough engineers out there, so why not engage both girls and boys to inspire future engineers? My answer is that in my experience, both as a role model and as a girl, has been that when the groups are mixed, the boys tend to take over. To their credit, the boys don't know they're doing it, it just happens. But sometimes it is as dramatic as this video (fast forward to 1:51). When the groups are just for them, the girls gain confidence because they're able to fully participate, to their maximum potential.

But why should a company care about outreach to girls? Let me ask you this: Can you find enough well qualified candidates (men or women) to fill your open positions for engineers? By looking for your engineers in one barrel, you might have to go pretty far down to recruit the staff you need. When you open the candidate pool to women, and especially minorities, you broaden the barrels of talent you can draw from. Now you don’t have to reach as far down in the barrel to fill your positions. As a result, you have better candidates.

But why prioritize minority girls over other girls? Ok, I’m getting to that. Let me continue my story about the Techbridge hairdryer dissection activity that I led.

Once the girls started taking apart their hairdryers, their discoveries ignited their curiosity for how things worked. When I asked about what kinds of engineers might have helped design the hairdryers, girls were able to rattle off more than six branches of engineering. After the event, some girls hung around to ask about the engineering principles (heat transfer and fluid dynamics) behind the hairdryers. I’m telling you, the girls love this activity!

On my drive home, I reflected on how this experience felt different from my past role model visits at Techbridge afterschool classrooms around Oakland. We did the same activity, but it was sometimes difficult for the Techbridge students to name even a couple of engineering disciplines. The students were a bit more hesitant to take the hairdryers apart, doubting that I really wanted them to destroy the appliances. Once they did, the girls worked with the same enthusiasm, and even more grit and determination, in my opinion. If something wouldn’t easily come apart, the Techbridge girls would ask me to help them, but they didn’t ask me to do it for them.

All girls loved the activity, but the girls in Techbridge’s afterschool clubs differed from the girls at the Saturday outreach event in three key ways:

• Exposure: The more economically privileged girls could rattle off at least six kinds of engineers. Was it because they already have engineering role models in their lives, or prior knowledge of these careers? In Techbridge it takes girls a lot longer. Is it because these students will be first generation college graduates? Yes, I think so. Techbridge exposes their students to new careers that may not be on their (or their family’s) radar.
• Resources: I had no hesitation recommending that the girls I worked with at Saturday’s event ask their parents to buy them tools and old appliances (not TVs!) to take apart. I felt sure they'd have the funds. However, when I visit Techbridge schools, I buy tool kits as giveaways to the students because I'm not sure their parents have the means to buy it for them. Without Techbridge, I don't think these students would have the opportunity or tools to explore "the guts of things."
• Expect more: Most of the girls in my Saturday event picked up the point of the activity quickly and understood how their hairdryers worked. In doing this activity with Techbridge, I feel like I have to provide more coaching and encouragement to 1) help girls figure it out, and 2) to understand that yes, they really can take it apart. Techbridge encourages their students to be bold. Techbridge has high expectations and hopes for their girls, and provides the venue for them to rise to the challenge.

In short, comparing my experience with these two groups of girls, I was reminded of how important I feel Techbridge’s work is. Techbridge levels the playing field. Techbridge introduces underserved students to careers they may have never even dreamed of, gives them the resources to explore those dreams, and sends them on with the added confidence to keep going. Techbridge’s work isn't just a good thing: It is a “must have” if we hope to bring underserved students up to the same level as students with access to a lot more resources.

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