Kristen Reeves was one of only a handful of women in her computer science classes in college. She says she nearly changed majors after her sophomore year because she feared she couldn’t fit in with her computer science classmates, but she stuck it out and now uses her experience to support and encourage young girls to pursue careers in technology.
Reeves is executive director and co-founder of Louisiana Women in Technology (LaWIT), a volunteer organization that provides career development and support for women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She also is a senior systems administrator at the Baton Rouge office of software and engineering firm Geocent.
“So many young girls are not exposed to STEM career paths, but rather directed to more ‘gender norm’ paths, like teaching or nursing,” Reeves says. “Once you open their eyes to the possibilities, it gives them a push to think about other options.”
We recently spoke with Reeves about the importance of encouraging girls to get interested in technology early and a few of her favorite projects that support that mission.
IT Girls: Sparking Middle-Schoolers’ Interest in CS
There may have been a time when prevailing biases kept women out of STEM career fields, but that’s no longer the case. Many companies are actively seeking women to fill positions, but they often have a hard time finding them, Reeves says.
“In the last three to four years, the push to get girls into these STEM fields has been tremendous,” she says. “We think that young girls weren’t exposed to science and technology fields at an early enough age.”
LaWIT seeks to change this with a free, annual creative computing workshop called IT Girls. First held in 2014, IT Girls is for middle-school girls in East Baton Rouge Parish. Run in partnership with STEMup Baton Rouge, the program is expecting 90 participants at this year’s event in March.
The daylong workshop teaches girls to program animations, stories and games using Scratch, a programming language created by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The program’s goal is to increase students’ interest in computer science, and Reeves says it relies heavily on the support of area organizations that donate time and resources.
Rails Girls: Programming Training for Women
For girls and women 16 and older, LaWIT offers a free, one-and-a-half day workshop with training in Ruby on Rails, an open-source programming language used to build web applications.
The annual Rails Girls workshop sponsored by LaWIT is part of the Rails Girls international nonprofit, which provides tools for women to learn about and explore their ideas in technology. LaWIT organized its first Rails Girls event in 2016 and is planning its second for this spring, Reeves says. Participants in last year’s event ranged in age from 16 to their mid-50s, she says.
Rails Girls workshop participants learn to design, prototype and code with the help of local volunteers from the web development community. “The volunteers were amazing,” Reeves says. “They gave up their Friday and Saturday to teach programming with something they’re very passionate about.” The volunteers also gave participants the resources to help them moving forward with programming, she says.
EngineerIT: Teaching Eighth-Graders About Environmental Engineering
In fall 2015, LaWIT launched EngineerIT, a daylong workshop for East Baton Rouge eighth-graders to design solutions for a particular environmental problem in Louisiana. Another partnership with STEMup Baton Rouge, the program is meant to prepare students to participate in the Louisiana Envirothon, which is hosted by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
EngineerIT gives teams of students — girls and boys — an environmental problem to research, and they create a plan to solve it. A winning team is chosen to compete in the Envirothon. The winner of EngineerIT in 2015, from Sherwood Middle School and mentored by LaWIT co-founder Sara Moore, finished third in the state competition. It was the first time a middle school ever placed in the event.
Reeves says seeing the students get excited about learning is one of the best parts for her. “This past fall when we hosted EngineerIT, I heard a student say, ‘This is so cool, I had no idea that we’d be learning this kind of stuff,’ ” she says. “Hearing it straight from the students makes us so proud and motivates us to build more programs.”