DigiGirlz just wanna have STEM

Microsoft’s DigiGirlz event returned to its HQ in Reading in April, and we were lucky enough to attend and meet some STEM superstars of tomorrow

When approaching the Microsoft HQ offices on an industrial estate in Reading, the imposing grey building does not immediately conjure up an image of creativity, joy and craft materials. If anything, from outside the building looks almost unremarkable, and certainly not like a bustling hub of tech magic. 

The assumption of an equally as grey and staid interior is somewhat inevitable, however, in the case of this particular building, completely wrong. As soon as I entered the lobby, the dynamic atmosphere was plain to see. Busy but not frantic, Microsoft employees and guests alike milled around in the fashion of worker ants, happily pursuing the tasks of the day ahead. 

And this particular day’s tasks were no ordinary ones. Today was DigiGirlz

Targeting Year 8 students, DigiGirlz is an initiative set up by Microsoft to encourage young women into STEM subjects. At ages 12–13, the girls are pre-GCSE choices, and are at a critical age for engagement. Microsoft research from last year confirmed that there is a window of opportunity in getting girls engaged in STEM. By the time they’ve gotten to choose their GCSEs, it’s often too late. This is where events such as DigiGirlz come in. 

Providing over 100 Year 8 girls a chance to engage with their peers in a supportive and creative environment, as well as allowing them the freedom to tinker with coding and programming, the main event of the DigiGirlz day was the maker challenge. This year, the challenge was centred around road safety, and required the girls to work in teams of three or four to come up with a system that would make the roads outside their schools safer, under the theme of this year’s event, which was ‘making the world a better place’. At their disposal were BBC micro:bits and switches, motors, etc, as well as craft materials such as paper cups, pipecleaners and coloured marker pens. 

The challenge had four official judges; Sarah Foxall, looking for the project with the most social impact; Michelle Devon, Support Escalation Engineer for Microsoft, judging for the ‘Engineer’s pick’; Clare Barclay, Microsoft UK COO, judging the most creative project; and Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK CEO, choosing the CEO’s pick. 

The DigiGirlz maker challenge was also designed with certain criteria in mind. The aforementioned Microsoft research highlighted three areas which need to be focused on in order to increase the likelihood that girls will be engaged and interested in STEM activities. These criteria are:

 – The day has to be hands-on

 – There has to be a lot of creativity involved

 – There have to be relevant role models

Although the girls were provided with BBC micro:bits and a variety of craft materials with which to build their designs, the judges were largely looking at how the girls worked together and engaged as part of a group. Sarah Foxall, my insightful guide for the day, and Microsoft’s Corporate Affairs Manager, said that the day was more about the roles that the girls embodied while working, and that although some of the girls had previously used the micro:bit and some hadn’t, the challenge was designed so that there wasn’t any bias towards those who had some previous coding experience. It was all about the creativity, said Sarah, and about allowing the girls to address a problem from their real lives, and to have their voices heard about possible solutions for their community. 

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The girls were incredibly focused on their projects, but I was able to take a few moments and hear about their plans, such as the IoT-connected sensors devised by a team from Denbigh High School: “Recently there have been a few accidents in our school area,” the girls said. “We feel that something needs to change [for everyone] to feel safer.” Clearly the issues in their communities were important to these students, and having a chance to have their ideas for improvement heard was invaluable to them. The Denbigh Team, named Safer Schools, not only created a great solution, but even had a business plan idea to roll it out. This entrepreneurial bent clinched them the top spot in the CEO’s Pick category, earning them a certificate presented by Cindy Rose herself. 

In a recent press release from Microsoft, Rose commented: Women represent just 30% of Europe’s ICT workforce. Simply put, the industry is overlooking an important untapped resource, and the sooner we develop a strategy to empower young UK women in STEM, the better we can prepare for and shape the future.” 

Not only was the conversation centred around encouraging the girls to explore their creativity, teamwork, leadership skills, and design and tech skills, but also in providing these young women with relevant and successful female role models in the tech world. Needless to say, the day was not lacking in this area, and speaking with Sarah, I found that this ‘can do’ attitude was what the DigiGirlz day was all about: “Our research shows that young women in the UK are more likely to consider a career in STEM if they have role models they can relate to. Microsoft’s DigiGirlz events are designed to give them that opportunity, within a creative hands-on experience of how technology can change people’s lives. Throughout the day, the girls hear from and meet a range of women at Microsoft who volunteer their time to support DigiGirlz.”

Alongside a plethora of both male and female volunteers from around Microsoft who guided the girls and answered their questions throughout the day, there were also scheduled talks, where the stellar line-up of speakers included current Microsoft interns Jashan Johal and Sophie Davies, as well as former apprentice and current Premier Field Engineer at Microsoft, Ruby Bedford. An enthralled audience listened to the women’s experiences in education and their paths into their current roles, and took part in a lively Q&A session with the panel, asking everything from ‘did you enjoy university?’ to ‘what are Microsoft looking for in an employee?’ There was also a keynote address from Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft, and featured scientist on the BBC’s Big Life Fix. Haiyan shared her experiences in coding and inventing with the girls, and took us all through a few of her stories from the Big Life Fix. 

To say that DigiGirlz was a success is surely an understatement. The girls were visibly enthused and excited throughout the day, despite some teams having to get up at 3.30am to travel to Reading from Wales. The speeches from the judges and interns were incredibly inspiring, and the presence of UK CEO Cindy Rose only added to the atmosphere; having a female CEO of a tech company take time out of her day to speak to schoolgirls was a testament to just how seriously Microsoft are taking the next generation. 

And it’s not just the next generation who learned a lot. Speaking to some of the Microsoft volunteers from the day, I began to understand much more fully just how much we have to learn from the younger generation. Whether their energy, their ingenuity, their collaborative skills, or just their incredible ability to make up a song on the fly about how they should be the team to win the competition, these young women have a fire in their bellies, and they will not be dismissed. Nor should they be. May they continue to share their ideas and address our society’s problems, and may they continue to remind us that, should we wish, we can all be DigiGirlz. 

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