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Courtney Besaw is a natural when it comes to numbers and experimentation. She’s also a girl. And as such, she took notice of a certain nuance in her elementary and high school math and science courses:
“There were always more boys.”
Though that fact in itself did nothing to detract Besaw from her personal ambitions, she found it was often difficult to ignore the implicit bias.
“People were always impressed when I was good at math or science, like they were not expecting such excellence from a girl. I would hear adults say, ‘You are good at math for a girl,’ or ‘Usually boys are better at math,’ ” Besaw said.
That’s not uncommon, said Kimberly A. Scott, associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. The founder of the nationally recognized CompuGirls, which introduces young girls from under-resourced school districts to technology, Scott has seen her share of educational injustice.
“I can recall going back to my time teaching in high-needs districts back East where I witnessed differential treatment by teachers and administrators in the schools,” she said. “They thought that these kids didn’t know enough or would never have the capacity to know enough because of their race, or gender, or socioeconomic status. So for me, not only as an African American woman, but as a social justice activist, this is something that we all must take seriously if we are really interested in addressing inequity.”
Keeping good on her word, Scott followed up on the success of CompuGirls with the formation of the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology (CGEST), which will host its official launch Monday, Jan. 11, on ASU’s Tempe campus.
“I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”
— Courtney Besaw, ASU Barrett Honors senior and CompuGirls peer mentor
The center will serve as a central hub — the first and only one of its kind — for the facilitation of research, building of programs and advocacy specific to African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American women in their pursuits in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
The goal, said Scott, is to “make a systemic impact on issues of disparity that are affecting our society as a whole.”
The launch of the center comes on the heels of the White House’s announcement in September 2015 that ASU will lead the National STEM Collaborative, a consortium of 19 institutions of higher education and nonprofit partners committed to supporting minority girls and women in STEM fields.
Scott, who was instrumental in the creation of the collaborative, said it arose from the realization that something “actionable” and “impactful” needed to come out of all the conversations and meetings being had on the topic.
In relation to CGEST, the National STEM Collaborative is one of the signature programs within its advocacy arm. There are two other arms of the center: knowledge-building and capacity-building.
The advocacy arm, explained Scott, focuses on communicating the research and information from the other two arms to leaders and policymakers. The knowledge-building arm is dedicated to synthesizing and presenting research, making it accessible to a large audience in order to make sustained and scalable efforts through informed empirical data. The capacity-building arm houses programs such as CompuGirls, that reach out to adolescent minority girls and provide them with multimedia courses that cover subjects from digital storytelling to robotics programming.
Besaw, now an ASU Barrett, the Honors College senior double majoring in anthropology and psychology, participated in the very first cohort of CompuGirls as a high school student in 2009, along with her friend and fellow Barrett Honors senior Mitzi Vilchis, a secondary education major.
Both girls stayed involved with the program through college, serving as peer mentors or interns after graduating from it, and even co-authoring a chapter in the book “#youthaction: Becoming Political in the Digital Age,” with Scott, in which they detail their experiences in the program.
“I know from when I was in the program that CompuGirls can have a great positive impact on the girls involved,” said Besaw.
And not just in terms of learning STEM; participants in the program also learn about social injustice and how to address the various forms of it.
Vilchis’ topic was domestic violence, which her group chose to address by creating a video documentary. She served as the group leader for the project, which involved the use of technology she said she had never even considered attempting to master.
Now she’s a pro.
“My peers all know that when they're having a technical difficulty, I'm the person to go to,” said Vilchis.
In the fall of 2015, both students accompanied Scott to New York City to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting on behalf of CompuGirls. When they weren’t demonstrating their robotics projects or singing the program’s praises, they ran into a few familiar faces: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Madeleine Albright, among others.
Besaw called the experience “the most exciting opportunity that I was given through CompuGirls,” and both she and Vilchis intend to remain involved with the program after graduating from ASU this May.
They will also both be the first in their families to graduate from college, and they intend to teach in the future; a good thing, considering there is still much work to be done in advocating for girls and women in STEM, as well as changing society’s perception of what they are capable of.
“Just this last semester my professor was having issues with the computer and asked, ‘All right, who's our tech guy?’” said Vilchis, “and my classmates in unison said, ‘Mitzi!’ I found it funny that she was expecting a guy to fix the technology problem and had a girl come to her rescue.”
Besaw sums it up thusly: “I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”
Watch the full interview with Kimberly A. Scott, ASU associate professor and founder of CompuGirls: