Young women aspiring toward STEM careers earn national awards in computing

This 2015 photo shows Southern Utah high school student award-winners in The National Center for Women in Information Technology Aspirations in Computing competition, Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, 2015 | Photo courtesy of SUU, Cedar City News - St. George News

CEDAR CITY — An award ceremony Saturday at Southern Utah University will honor high school girls from Southern Utah who are active and interested in computing and technology, showing noteworthy initiative in light of national statistics that indicate a low percentage of female undergraduates progress in STEM careers.

More than 57 percent of college undergrads are women, but only 18 percent of those progress into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, as a career, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With the support of parents and educators, 142 high school-aged girls from Southern Utah competed in the “Aspirations in Computing” program of the National Center for Women in Information Technology. The multitiered competition is a platform for aspiring young women to showcase unique software coding, Web design and information technology skills.

Saturday’s ceremony will recognize all of the Southern Utah affiliate’s students who applied as well as awarding 41 winners.

The Southern Utah affiliate is a leading entity in the competition, setting a high standard for rural counties and empowering young women.

“We were one of the 11 affiliates out of 70 in the USA to almost double our applicants,” Southern Utah University’s associate professor of information systems, Dr. Shalini Kesar, wrote in a Web page post for Southern Utah Aspirations Women in Computing.

Kesar has been involved with the organization since its beginning, the university’s news release said, spearheading its development across 10 counties and doubling the number of participants each year for the past three years.

“It is clear there is potential and a need,” Kesar wrote. “In 2014 we had 39 applicants, 2015 we had 75 applicant and this year 142!”

This program gives these girls an aptitude in computing and aspirations to continue in this field,” she said. “Our goal is to build awareness about the technology field and to give participants confidence in the skills they acquire.”

Accessibility is one of the big barriers the Southern Utah region faces, Kesar said, according to the news release. She and committee members Jessica Burr and Laurie Harris work with undergraduate students and volunteer their time at the event and in outreach activities.

Students here receive specialized attention and individual mentoring through high school and middle school teachers to help encourage and improve their skills. Teachers, Kesar said, are the pillar to this program.

“(Teachers) help motivate their students and build a team of strong girls,” she said.

The Aspirations in Computing program and competition provide a long-term community for female technologists, from K-12 through higher education and beyond. It encourages persistence in computing through continuous engagement and ongoing encouragement at each pivotal stage of the students’ educational and professional development.

The ceremony will be held at the Hunter Conference Center on the SUU campus.

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