For ten years Grace has been one of the co-leaders for a WIT chapter in Westchester County, where IBM has its worldwide headquarters. Every month during the year, she and other volunteers spend three to four hours leading a workshop designed to get girls, aged 8 to 16 years old, more interested in the sciences and give them access to female role models in information technology.
“When we start each workshop we ask how many like science and math. We don’t get many hands that go up,” says Grace.
While teenage girls are just as likely as boys to be users of technology, computers and the Internet, by some estimates they are five times less likely in the United States to consider careers or university study in technology.
In the WIT workshops, Grace emphasizes that “Everything in your life, from the clothes you’re wearing to your hair band to a rubber band, is touched by technology.”
The session introduces girls to surprising technology invented by women, such as the windshield wiper, the material for bulletproof vests, and the conceptual basis for computers. As Grace says, “Just because something is mostly used by a man, doesn’t mean it was invented by a man.” She adds, “And that little revelation alone seems to be a nice eye-opener for many of the girls. By the end of the workshop, the girls create a buzz of excitement and interest as they realize how much fun they had ‘inventing’ a new spin of a product using science, math and their wild creativity.”
Makers of things
Grace was thrilled to hear President Obama in 2009 ask scientists and engineers to “show young people what it is that your work can mean” and “to think of creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering.”
Grace says that “In the workshop we have the girls work in small teams, as CEOs of a business, to create a new product from about 27 prepared kits, and it can be something that is accessible to them, like lip gloss, pocketbooks, ice cream or shoes. We’re not talking about quantum physics – yet.” She adds, “They’re learning that STEM is also about teamwork, marketing and communicating.”
Grace and team seem to have hit on a winning approach; by the end of 2011 they are expecting to reach almost 800 girls in Westchester.
“I think we’re a playing a role helping young people be, like the President said, makers of things, not just consumers of things. At the end of the workshop the girls want to talk about people they know who are engineers, their curiosity has been piqued.” She adds, “Their excitement at the end is so satisfying.”
The science lady…and a national point of light
“My family told us we can do and be whatever we want, to explore and have an open mind. I was supported as a girl and a woman to pursue my passion,” Grace says. “Now I have a chance to share that with other girls.”
Over the years Grace volunteered in her daughter's classrooms to talk about STEM careers and related activities. Today, seven years later, her daughter and the other students are getting ready for high school; several have told Grace that she influenced them to consider careers in technology. Grace admits that many at the school now call her “the science lady.”
In addition to her work with WIT, Grace is a Girl Scout Leader and a member of the board of directors for the YWCA of White Plains, New York. She’s taken the message about the role women can play in technology to girls in both organizations.
Earlier in 2011 Grace received recognition as a “daily point of light,” a national award that honors individuals and groups in the U.S. who help meet critical needs in their communities. “[The award] really is a reflection of the work of a lot of people, like my partners at IBM who have helped with WIT—Grace Fan, Pietrina Rotolo, Marge Sohr and others. I’m thrilled that it’s something we can share with the girls to show them the importance being given to STEM now.”
“What I enjoy is seeing the children’s faces. Their minds are starting to think ‘I can do this; I can go into this field.’ You can see the look of possibility on their faces. I love that.”
IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.