Encouraging more girls to code not just a first-world problem for Technovation Challenge

Growing up in India, Tara Chklovski said she felt that young girls and boys were equally encouraged to study engineering and the sciences. So when she came to the U.S. in her early twenties, she was surprised to see women leaning away from careers in technology.

“I was struck by how, in a first-world country, you have women who don’t see themselves as inventors and problem-solvers,” she said. “Women don’t see science and engineering as fields that are accessible to them.”

Chklovski had planned to pursue a PhD in aerospace engineering and then work for an aviation company. But, along the way, she decided to switch gears and launch the non-profit Iridescent Learning, with a mission of bringing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum to high school girls and encouraging women engineers, scientists and other high-tech professionals to be mentors.

And now that the program is gaining traction in the U.S., she’s expanding its scope to countries around the world.

Meetups meet massive open online classes

Through its annual Technovation Challenge, girls across the country take part in a 12-week mobile app development program that includes involvement from female tech leaders like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Edmodo CEO Crystal Hutter. Participants meet with their team and a teacher or local mentor each week in person, as well as follow online instructions through P2PU, an online open education project.

“[The program is] like a hybrid between meetups and Coursera,” said Chklovski.

This year, for example, the program challenged more than 100 teams of girls to create a mobile app that solves an issue in their community. Some of the finalists, who will pitch their ideas to judges from Google, Dropbox, the Office of Naval Research and other STEM organizations this week, include an app that pairs nonprofits and volunteers and a mobile service for school attendance taking. The top team will win $10,000 and support to bring their app to market.

Given the dearth of programming instruction in the U.S. schools — it’s not offered at 90 percent of U.S. schools, despite the fact that programming jobs are growing at double the pace of other jobs, according to Code.org — more startups and nonprofits are stepping up to fill the instructional void.

But, as Silicon Valley knows so well, the need for technical training is even more pronounced among women and girls. While about 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees go to women, the percentage of computer science degrees earned by women is in the low double-digits. In addition to Iridescent, organizations like Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It and Black Girls Code are zeroing on the gender gap in technology with programs that give women and girls technical training and support networks.

Inspiring women inventors in the developing world

In the seven years since its launch, Iridescent has raised millions of dollars from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research and it’s partnered with top tech companies like Google (s GOOG), Microsoft (s MSFT), Twitter and LinkedIn to mentor and educate more than 17,000 girls in NY, LA, Chicago, Boston and the Bay Area through its several programs.

For the first time this year, international teams competed in the Technovation Challenge. But Chklovksi said she wants to reach beyond more affluent teams overseas to girls in the developing world.

While Iridescent can shoulder the cost of providing teams with mobile phones and corporate partners with international networks can help provide access to other technology, Chklovski said that as they expand, a bigger challenge may be infrastructure issues — for example, reaching areas that don’t have widespread Internet access. For teams in those regions, she said, they’re moving content to USB drives so students aren’t dependent on the Internet.

Other teams may face cultural barriers. This year, a team from Ghana that wanted to participate in the challenge ran into difficulties because it was only culturally-appropriate for middle-aged men to have mobile phones, not young girls. Translating the program’s content from English into different languages will likely be another issue as Iridescent boosts its presence in the developing world.

But Chklovski said they’re learning from their efforts and are working with their partners’ local networks around the world to troubleshoot problems that pop up. And to be extra sure teams in more remote areas can still complete the program, she said that for next year they’re removing the 12-week schedule so that teams have ample time to complete the curriculum.

“[The idea] is girls in third world countries looking at a phone and saying, ‘I can fix this’,” she said. “It’s having the confidence to think of themselves as inventors. We’re changing the way the public sees girls and the way that girls see themselves.”