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STEM and Her

STEM and Her

By Matt Morgan

View full image. Photo by Charles Barry
HPE, the YWCA, and Santa Clara jointly created Curated Pathways to Innovation (CPI), an app that incentivizes tech training, analyzes outcomes, and doubles down on methods that work.

Janice Zdankus MBA ’93 remembers it like this: She was a first-year computing student at Purdue University in 1982. She was in line at the computer lab, waiting for a seat to open up. Just then, she looked around the room and it clicked: She was the only woman there.

It’s a familiar story, no doubt. Women were outnumbered in many fields. But in computing, the story isn’t going in the direction that many professions are. As much success as Zdankus, VP of Quality at Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE), has experienced in 31 years at HPE, computing is just as lopsided today as it was then. In fact, it’s worse. Only 1 in 20 women who work, work in computing. 

“It was 37 percent (women) in computing programs when I was in school and now it’s 17 percent,” Zdankus says. “So, we’re going backwards.”

Though it’s not for lack of trying. Tech companies collectively invest billions in STEM education, with programs focused on opportunities for women and minorities. Silicon Valley tech companies alone invested $3 billion in STEM education in 2009.

“Many companies, foundations, organizations, nonprofits, made up that $3 billion,” Zdankus says. “So, we started looking at the disconnect, we mapped out the leaky pipeline.”

A career spent coding? Not exactly. Janice Zdankus says careers in computing are about solving the world's problems using technology. Photo by Charles Barry

The leak is, fittingly, in the gaps. Zdankus offers this example: An eighth-grade African-American student goes to a coding camp. She loves it. As far as the camp organizers go, mission accomplished. But what happens when she enters high school and isn’t enrolled in algebra or computing classes?

“Maybe she falls through the cracks,” Zdankus says. “We need to get an alternative way to keep and nurture that interest.”

That’s where Curated Pathways to Innovation (CPI) comes in. Along with the YWCA and College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University, HPE developed an Android app that offers computer training, provides incentives, and tracks progress.

“We’ll say, ‘You know what? If you go watch this video of what a computer scientist does and participate in this little web based activity, we’ll give you a Jamba Juice card,’” Zdankus says. “‘Or better yet, by the end of spring semester, if you have done the following steps, we’ll give you a free summer camp at San Jose State.’”

The CPI pilot launched at Ocala Middle School in January. Ocala was an ideal location because many of its students are the ones CPI wants to reach: 74 percent Latino and 84 percent from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Ten students from SCU’s College of Arts and Sciences will work on CPI for the next three years. Three to four will work on coding. The rest will administer surveys and provide programming workshops for middle schoolers.

One obstacle tech faces is the fact that many women and minorities are simply interested in other fields, Zdankus says. They want to help people but see professions like medicine as a better way.

“I challenge them a little bit and say, ‘Great. (With medicine), you can change the life of a person you’re working with. How about changing the lives of thousands of people. You can do that with technology,’” Zdankus says.

Another example: Last year, Zdankus attended the World Economic Forum in Amsterdam. The topic was finding new ways to feed the expected 2 billion more people living on Earth in 2050.

“It’s going to take technology—advanced and accelerated research around phenotyping and precision agriculture,” Zdankus says. “I told my kids ‘Oh, I’m just heading to Amsterdam to work on world hunger.’ Half jokingly but, it’s true. We don’t tell those stories very well.”

Zdankus hopes CPI will help correct misconceptions about computing. Sitting in a dark room by yourself coding for hours on end just isn’t a reality. In fact, Zdankus says it isn’t something she ever did. Instead, she does a lot of problem solving.

“I tell young kids, do you like to be curious?” Zdankus says. The focus of the pilot will be computing but it could expand into other STEM fields. The National Science Foundation is already interested in the findings.

“Once we get our legs under the project, we’ll expand the number of schools and we have a waiting list already,” Zdankus says. “Houston is very interested in bringing the project to their area.” So are San Diego and Seattle.

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