Rise of the DigiGirlz: Two-day technology showcase draws dozens of female middle schoolers to Sacramento State

Separate initiatives work to encourage more girls, people of color in science and tech fields

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the April 13, 2017, issue.

It was a stuffy setting for something so cool.

A college classroom the color of weak coffee. Black-backed chairs lined up on a Tufted broadloom office carpet. A PowerPoint presentation fighting for clarity on a projector screen. And 56 middle school girls preparing to take the future by storm.

The students were participants in last month’s DigiGirlz, a two-day technology showcase co-hosted by Sacramento State, the city of Sacramento and Microsoft, designed to whet their appetites for careers in science, technology, engineering or math—fields otherwise known as STEM. DigiGirlz is one component of Microsoft’s YouthSpark, a worldwide initiative to get more women and minorities into STEM professions.

On March 23 and 24, the students who converged on Sac State learned about robots used to teach nursing students how to respond to life-threatening emergencies. They also tried their hand at coding. Sydney Bruce, an eighth-grader at Sutter Middle School who hopes to become a trauma surgeon, said the best part of the excursion was learning how to code a computer program that would turn a LED light on and off.

That kind of reaction was gratifying to Natasha Greer, a DigiGirlz organizer and the city of Sacramento’s website administrator.

“I was in a program similar to DigiGirlz,” said Greer, referring to San Francisco’s Gifted and Talented Education initiative, which connected her to weekend tutoring from Berkeley undergrads. After she completed the GATE program, she was able to choose any UC school for undergraduate education. Greer ended up obtaining her degree in computer science at UC Davis. “That program is what pathed the way for me to get where I am,” she said.

Statistics speak of opportunity.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics says California is tops in the nation for the fastest-growing professions in STEM fields. About a year ago, a study created by SmartAsset ranked Sacramento as the city with the most diverse STEM workforce in the country. SmartAsset’s findings chalked the results up to Sacramento’s innovation fund and its government hiring processes.

However, even though women make up more than half of the nation’s college-educated workforce, they make up only 29 percent of the STEM workforce, according to Science and Engineering Indicators, a quantitative information stream about the nation’s STEM industry. And 70 percent of people working in science and engineering fields are white.

It’s not like one gender is better at science and technology fields. Science and Engineering Indicators points out that high school girls achieve just as well as boys in math and science courses. But when these same students reach college, the gap between male and female achievement in STEM fields widens. So what gives?

A study of the American Association of University Women found that barriers for women in pursuing STEM fields at the college level are linked to the false perception that they are not good at math or science because of their gender. The study discovered that even women who discount this stereotype still buy into an implicit bias about their role in those fields.

Greer experienced these doubts herself. Often the only woman in her computer science courses at UC Davis, she eventually grew to view her rarefied status as a positive.

“I became proud to be the only woman in the class,” said Greer, who is also African-American. “But I also had a lot of support—the National Society of Black Engineers and the Minority Engineering Club on the UC Davis campus—those were fantastic organizations that gave me the confidence to know that I could do it.”

This was the second DigiGirlz conference hosted by the city and Microsoft and the first time that it took place at Sac State. The goal was to change mindsets by exposing the girls to female leaders in STEM fields that spark technological innovation and scientific discoveries and solve mathematical anomalies.

“It is really about demystifying what kinds of jobs are available at Microsoft or within an organization like the city,” said Melinda Anderson, business operations and community manager for Microsoft Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Besides DigiGirlz, the nonprofit Parent Teacher Home Visits sends STEM teachers into the homes of students from diverse backgrounds.

April Ybarra said her daughter Kenya benefited greatly from the initiative, rising to the top of her fifth-grade math class and receiving an excellence award in mathematics for highest achievement from Oak Ridge Elementary School.

“My kids are more connected to their teachers and I talk to their teachers just like they were friends,” April Ybarra said. “It builds this relationship where teachers can tell me if they have concerns about my kids and it helps me as a parent because if I have a problem with my daughters I can approach their teachers.”