An organization focused on strengthening STEM skills in girls is succeeding in part by investing in a lot of non-technical concepts — role models, social issues, educational approaches, and soft skills.
For Rhynne Pharr, a recent graduate of the INTech Camp for Girls, the program built an appreciation of teamwork. “Teamwork is important and I just can’t do everything by myself at once,” Rhynne said. At a recent after-school camp session at the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, half a dozen girls worked together to study application modeling with a professional developer, and then conceived, pitched and improved paper-based models for potential mobile apps.
The INTech founder, Khalia Braswell, is a Charlotte native who graduated from Berry Academy and has a computer science degree from North Carolina State University and a master’s in information technology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She was an employee at Apple in California and then returned to Charlotte to start INTech in 2014, after noticing a lack of women in tech — especially minority women. INTech encourages its students to be creators of technology rather than just consumers. “I didn’t have anybody encouraging me to create. I just naturally wanted it myself,” Braswell said. Although she did not have African American or Latino women in her internships or degree programs, she knew they were interested. “So INTech has to continue to provide it for them.”
INTech students are girls aged 10-16. Braswell chose Generation Z — people born between 1995 and 2010 — partly because she was impressed by their social awareness. “They are very aware of what’s happening in the world, more so than millennials and any other generation.” INTech calls its students “scholars” and teaches them the importance of asking for help because they are not expected to know everything, Braswell said.
“We start off on day one telling them that this is how you have a social enterprise, this is what it means, and we’re not going to make a website about your favorite rap artist,” she said. “It’s actually very eye-opening the ideas that they come up with. They’re talking about racism, they’re talking about LGBTQ issues, they’re talking about homelessness. They come up with these ideas as middle school students.”
Beyond social issues, INTech spends a lot of time with role models. “The main way that INTech makes the tech world seem attainable to our scholars is all of the examples that we put in front of them of women in tech,” Braswell said. She described a friend who started in film, then worked at an Apple retail store in Durham while obtaining an advanced degree in coding, then worked as an front-end developer. Her friend now works at Apple in California. “We continue to put examples like her in front of our girls so that they’ll know: not only can I do this, but I can do this in a major way. And my path doesn’t have to be super-duper linear. They’re aren’t a lot of women in tech. They’re aren’t a lot of black women in tech. But we are here and so once that happens, that unlocks some things in their minds, so it’s not even just about skills.”
A different mindset on educational approaches in middle and high school might help, Braswell said. If more teachers, parents, and counselor asked the question “let’s identify why they aren’t doing well in the class,” they may learn that it’s not actually the student — it might be the teaching style, she said. “Building up that confidence will not only allow more girls to consider STEM, but stay in STEM.”
INTech shows that technology will be important, no matter what profession they go into. It teaches the importance of learning how to use resources provided to them. Khalia said, “if you want to work in tech, if you want to work anywhere in life you need to know how to network.”
Rhynne Pharr, now a senior at Hopewell High School In Huntersville, attended the first INTech camp in 2014. The camp changed her career focus from fashion merchandising to computer engineering and gave her a sense of confidence and resilience even when she fails. If her INTech team failed at an exercise, Rhynne said, “we just had to take a step back and process it because we had just started and because it was the first time there would be obvious kinks.”
Photo above: Khalida Seabury, a scholar in the INTech Camp for Girls at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, studies application modeling in the fall 2018 semester program.