An untapped innovation engine to power economic growth

Posted on Apr 30, 2019 :: Partner
Posted by Michelle Schuler, Manager of TechSpark Wisconsin

The race is on for businesses to be innovative and competitive. That’s especially true in Wisconsin. But a huge resource is going untapped when it comes to homegrown innovation and driving prosperity in our communities.

We need more students to pursue STEM and computer science, especially our daughters. 

If you think it’s just an issue for tech companies, think again. This is a fundamental challenge, as every industry across our economy — from agriculture to transportation — harnesses technology and finds itself needing more skilled workers.

In Wisconsin alone, there are more than 6,800 open computing jobs, and yet in 2017 our colleges only produced 1,190 computer science graduates. Of that number, only 202 were women. 

According to Girls Who Code, Wisconsin is part of a similar trend across the country: Even as the number of computing jobs increase, the number of women graduates is expected to decrease.

There are many reasons why girls lose interest in STEM, from a lack of role models and support, to misperceptions about what these careers look like in the real world. For girls living in small towns and rural areas, educational opportunities and support are even harder to find.

The good news is that parents, educators, local leaders and companies are working together to turn this trend around in Northeast Wisconsin. It’s that spirit of collaboration that TechSpark Wisconsin is tapping to unlock education pathways for girls and to create the support networks needed to help them pursue a good-paying career in technology.

At our spring DigiGirlz events, we had more than 600 girls using the Adafruit Circuit Playground Express device with interactive sensors and controls to learn about programming using this small and affordable piece of technology. This is on top of our Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) efforts expanding access for all students in the classroom and our work with CESA 6 to create more youth computer science apprenticeship opportunities for all students.

We’re collaborating with Women In Technology (WIT) Wisconsin to bring in local women working in technology jobs as role models to inspire, engage and mentor girls on pursuing technology careers. And more than 100 community leaders have stepped forward in this effort through programs, policies and support to encourage local girls to pursue STEM education and technology opportunities.

If you want to be a part of the solution, ask your business to partner with WIT Wisconsin, advocate for computer science as a high school graduation requirement and encourage your daughter to sign up for an hour of code. A parent’s encouragement alone makes a daughter 81 percent more likely to study computer science in high school.

Everyone has skin in this game because long-term economic growth often hinges on a long-term commitment turning challenge into opportunity.

When you consider the demand for skilled workers will only grow as industries embrace digital transformation, not only will women benefit from these career opportunities, but companies will prosper from the innovation these builders, inventors and problem-solvers can bring to our economy.

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Michelle Schuler is manager of TechSpark Wisconsin and a co-founder and past president of Women In Technology Wisconsin.