Earlier this year, in the Swedish city of Västerås, 65 girls from the local high school - Fryxellska Skolan - gathered around Fredrik Löfgren and his lovable dancing robot, Nao.
The duo - semi-finalists on a Swedish national talent show - quickly captured the group’s imagination. As Nao, an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot developed for research and education purposes, sat up, spoke, and busted some dance moves, the girls were able to relate to the broader concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and some of the things it can do.
This was the start of the Amazon Web Services-sponsored ‘Girls’ Tech Day’, one of a global series of events also taking place in cities across the US, as well as Cape Town, Dublin and Sydney, in locations near to where the company has data centres. The aim? To address the lack of young women across the globe currently pursuing Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects.
Disa Jernudd is the Secretary General of Kodcentrum, a non-profit association that introduces children to programming and digital creation. She was one of the organisers of the event and explains that 11 to 13 year-olds are a key demographic. It’s when you can catch girls on the cusp of honing their likes and dislikes, and making career decisions. “Events like Girls’ Tech Day are important because they give girls a chance to be inspired,” says Disa. “They have an opportunity to understand that the world of tech is not only available to them, but that it needs them.”
The students followed-up their morning session with lessons in smaller groups on virtual reality, mini robots, and Scratch, a programming language that helps young people learn how to code.
Kodcentrum led the Scratch workshop. “We introduced the girls to the basics of Scratch and showed them how to program their own musical instrument on their computers,” Disa explains. “As soon as the girls started to get the hang of block programming, it was amazing how creative they were. Some programmed animals to play different sounds, some used fruit. The stories that appeared on the various screens were all different, but all amazing.”
“My message was: You’ve just tried and succeeded in programming your own instrument. Is there any reason as to why any of you shouldn’t be able to work as a programmer in the future?”
These students were perhaps already better versed in the joys of digital than some of their peers in other countries. Not only is their city home to an AWS data centre, it also has a scientific heritage. “Västerås is an engineering-focused community,” says Torbjörn Bengtsson, Director of Investment Promotion at Invest Västerås, and one of the local organisers. “We need to keep developing and encouraging potential talent to see the opportunities in tech – it benefits the individual, community and industry alike.”
The day closed with a Q&A session with Kodcentrum, a female data centre engineer, and a local university group called Girls in STEM. “The underrepresentation of women in STEM is a real problem,’ says Sara Sterne of Girls in STEM. “Having the opportunity to be creative with technology outside school, together with your friends, can have a very big impact when it comes to developing an interest for STEM. It might be the reason why a girl decides to become an engineer.”
During the Q&A, one girl said that the day had made her realise that technology was something that could be available to her. “It was a very clear indicator that these kinds of activities can change how girls see technology,” says Sara.
Other volunteers at the event included AWS employees and five older girls from ABB Industrigymnasium (Industrial High School). It was inspiring for the young students to see females just a couple of years older, who were already proactively involved in engineering.
The main question from the group at the end of the day was “when can we do this again?” says Torbjörn. “We could see how much their confidence had developed as the day progressed. They were already ready to learn more.”
For more information about AWS Girls’ Tech Days worldwide, visit: www.awsgirlstechday.com