Increasing evidence - both anecdotal and empirical - points to middle school as the beginning of a person’s path through life. It might not be the beginning of an actual career, but our passions, interests and talents all begin to take shape during these formative years. Sports academies around the world have been clued into this fact for years as soccer and basketball leagues mine for talent amongst the 12-year old set on a regular basis. Malcolm Gladwell tells us that someone needs 10,000 hours to become skilled at their chosen profession. Roughly three hours a day for five days a week means that someone could come into their own in about 12-13 years...a span that would find a middle schooler turning 25-years old. And now, we have data from Accenture and others that documents middle school exposure to technology as being critical for fostering technology-related careers.
For anyone that has followed TechGirlz, you know this is our mission: to inspire a love for technology in middle school girls. So this increasing body of evidence is great validation for us. But it also struck me that as more of this information comes to light, more organizations could refocus on this critical age group. In that way, our experience might be valuable. To help, I’ve tried to capture a short list of the critical lessons we’ve learned working with middle school girls in the hopes that it can help other similar groups.
Quick disclaimer: just by the nature of our work, this will be geared towards middle school girls, but most are equally applicable to boys.
Listen to Your Audience
As adults, we often believe we know what is best for our kids. While this approach sometimes has merit, it clearly did not work in the case of the business and education communities teaching girls about tech careers. Instead of treating 12-year olds as a “buyer” or “user” of the material, the industry simply tried to throw a bunch of information and generic high school style coursework at the problem. The result is the lack of diversity in the workforce today. Instead of creating a healthy pipeline of qualified female candidates, the industry left girls disinterested in STEM related careers.
Our experience has shown that by listening to the kids and understanding what inspires them, you can have a much greater impact. One of our key learnings was that girls felt available courses were boring. They wanted more hands-on, problem-solving opportunities to immerse themselves in technology.
The lesson then for anyone serving middle school kids is clear: make sure your product is 12-year old approved!
Build a Community
When we first launched TechGirlz, many of our potential funders wanted to know when we were planning to offer our materials online. We know that online resources are an important way to reach more girls, but we also know how important it is for the girls to see and meet others that share their interest in technology. Engendering this feeling of fellowship is key to the success of our model, so we have deliberately balanced the availability of materials with its delivery in a physical setting. The result is that time and time again, our girls tell us stories of forming these lasting friendships out of our events.
At the same time, it’s also important for us to build a community around the volunteer instructors that run our TechShopz. Many of the women and men that give of their time on behalf of the kids value the ability to socialize and share with like-minded colleagues. This sense of community also extends outward as many of our volunteers serve as role models and mentors to the girls beyond our events.
It is critical that anyone seeking to build a movement within this demographic understand how important in-person interactions are, even in a world dominated by mobile apps. The kids learn valuable lessons in a real world setting that can help sustain them in other environments.
Engage the Adults in the Room
As soon as we begin discussing kids and their education or social choices, we often forget about what can be one of the most influential and stabilizing forces in their lives - adults. Parents, teachers and mentors are extremely influential in young people’s lives, and serve as their most impassioned advocates.
Yet, we, at TechGirlz, have seen very little about how to engage this important group in articles or research. Our girls have told us they learn a lot about technology at home. And who finds out about our events and drives the girls to them? Parents. Who is leading the classroom instruction? Volunteer instructors.
In order to build the best platform possible to reach middle school aged children, organizations must remember to engage, activate and inform the adults in the room. In this way, they are empowered to provide the support and encouragement necessary to help kids on their journey.
Look Before You Leap
Many organizations and individuals working with children for the first time do so because they are filling a self-perceived need - nutrition, exercise, instruction, etc. In this way, many launch themselves into the work relying on their own point of view and tools. It’s important to first step back and take a look at what others have already done before you. If quality materials or lessons exist, there is no need to recreate the wheel. And even if you find nothing of value, then you at least understand what has been attempted prior and how you can avoid the same mistakes.
When we launched TechGirlz, we hoped to find and leverage existing technology instruction materials. Unfortunately, we found little in the way of professional material and even less that met our internal criteria for success. But by doing this research first, and then listening to feedback from the kids as our “users,” we were able to cherry pick the best of what existed and then build a better platform from day one.
By understanding your ecosystem and avoiding the duplication of effort, you can more effectively utilize your resources.
Don’t Let the Blockers Get You Down
Over the past six years, we have learned that before every success we’ve had to overcome some roadblocks. For middle school, these blockers, as we have begun to call them, can take many forms - no after school space to meet, inaccessible wifi codes after-hours, a lack of snacks for hungry pre-teens. It’s important to acknowledge these are going to crop up in your way no matter how well you plan. Don’t let the blockers get you down! I promise, they’ll be funny in hindsight. And ultimately, they force us to be more resourceful and open to alternatives in the future.
It Takes a Village
In our experience, this is one of the most important lessons. These girls are on a journey and we all play a part in getting them to the finish line. No one group has all the answers, no one group will be able to support the girls at all stages. There is a vital role for TechGirlz, Girls Who Code, #BUILTBYGIRLS, Black Girls Code, and so many other important organizations. Teaching is labor intensive, and we all need to open to working together in service to our girls.
The Yellow Brick Road
Finally, we must all realize that even though a person’s path can begin in middle school, it certainly does not end there. Like the Yellow Brick Road, it stretches ahead of them with all the possible joys, challenges, and dangers.
A soccer player might leave an academy to attend and play at high school, then college before playing professionally or becoming a coach. In the same way, our middle school focused TechShopz see as many as 70% of our girls return for more instruction. But after their three years in middle school are over, these girls must move on to a more advanced curriculum or outside pursuits on their way to a career in technology.
It’s critical that any organization serving middle schoolers understand what opportunities are available next, and then effectively communicate that to the kids. Just as Dorothy was instructed to follow the Yellow Brick Road, so must we illuminate the path ahead for our charges. Help them understand what each of their next steps should be, what they can expect in the future, and how they can overcome challenges along the way.
In this way, we can avoid becoming just a brief distraction or detour on a child’s path, and instead be the start of a meaningful and continuous journey.