By Kari Peterson
Never underestimate the fun a group of enthusiastic girls can have when combining art, culture and technology.
Indeed, that is precisely the message Parto Aram wishes to impart to her students — girls between the ages of 10 and 16. Aram is the director of ISIS Education, a Davis-based nonprofit she founded five years ago dedicated to promoting equity in science and technology for girls.
Aram’s passion for engaging girls in technology is not accidental. She has degrees in electrical engineering and gender studies, in addition to an MBA, and worked for 15 years in computer design. She and her husband are raising two daughters in Davis.
“Research has shown that girls like science just as much as boys in elementary school and are just as good at it,” Aram said. “Early in their school years, girls’ science test scores match boys’. But as they get older, cultural stereotypes enter the picture and suddenly girls are taught to believe they are not as science-savvy as boys. This misperception results in far fewer girls pursuing careers in science and technology.”
In fact, statistics show that only 18 percent of computer science majors are girls.
“Another significant fact is that girls learn differently,” Aram added.
She suggests that in order to effectively engage girls in science learning, there needs to be a different approach to teaching.
“Research shows that girls enjoy learning technology a lot more if there is a creative element, if technology is used to help others or if technology brings people together. Girls prefer to work collaboratively on projects.”
Aram’s workshops offer an opportunity for girls to learn about technology in a way that appeals to them, and the projects in her classes are carefully chosen with those key principles in mind. The results are impressive.
Take, for instance, Aram’s latest class. Isabella Ainsworth, Bianca Aram and Sawyer Norton, all ninth-graders at Emerson Junior High School, signed up for a web design and animation course this summer. They expected to spend their time in a computer lab, which they did, but Aram wanted to spice things up a bit and she had a plan.
She contacted the International House and was given the names of visiting scholars and spouses who might be willing to work with Aram’s students on a cultural exchange project. Nathalie Minya from Zimbabwe was game.
After the girls completed the web design and animation classroom sessions, Aram arranged to have them meet with Minya on a Saturday morning to share stories about her country, its culture and especially its cuisine. Minya agreed to help the girls plan, shop for and prepare a typical Zimbabwean meal.
“What does this have to do with technology?” Aram laughs. “Well, I told the girls they’d have to document the entire experience on a website, using their newly acquired web design and animation skills. They were instructed to interview Minya and take lots of photos and videos. Most of all, I told them to be creative and have fun!”
According to Aram, when technology is the means rather than the end, it is far more interesting and much less daunting.
Isabella, Bianca and Sawyer met with Minya. After an engaging hour of conversation that covered history, politics and social traditions, the focus shifted to food and meal planning. They settled on two typical Zimbabwean dishes: Sadza is a traditional mixture of cornmeal and water, eaten with the hands, and served with a variety of stews. Muriwo Une Dovi is a stew made of kale and peanut butter.
Minya and the three girls then rode their bikes to the Davis Farmers Market to shop for ingredients. At the market, they also talked to vendors and farmers to learn a little about their jobs. Staff from the Dixon-based Everything Under the Sun farm talked with the girls about the produce they grow and helped them pick quality ingredients for their meal.
They returned to Aram’s house to cook together. They videotaped Minya as she demonstrated techniques and made notes about dish preparations. The highlight of the day was sitting down with Minya to share their meal, continuing their conversations about life in Zimbabwe.
After a rich and fascinating day of cultural immersion, it was time for the girls to return their attention to the task at hand — creatively recounting the adventure using their new technology skills and tools.
Aram was very pleased with their work.
“The girls did a wonderful job,” she said. “They put together a set of web pages that includes photos, cooking demonstrations, facts about Zimbabwe, and, of course, the recipes. They had fun with the design elements, choosing colors and motifs commonly used in Zimbabwean fabric and art. Their website tells the story of their day beautifully. And, most importantly, they had a really good time doing it.”
Said Sawyer: “My favorite part of the class was meeting Nathalie, talking to her about her family and the Zimbabwean traditions. The food was really good. The animation part of the class was completely new and interesting to me.”
“The whole experience was enlightening,” Bianca said. “It was great to learn about a new culture from a native of Zimbabwe. Making the website was an important skill that I am sure I’ll use later in life. We divided the website in different pages, and worked together.”
And Isabella’s impression: “It was fantastic to be able to learn about a new culture while at the same time learning about how to design a web page.”
To see the girls’ website, visit http://isis-education.org/girlstechnologycommunity.
Information about ISIS Education and upcoming classes can be found at http://www.isis-education.org. Aram will continue to offer technology-for-girls classes in the coming year. There will be similar workshops on organic gardening, the digital divide, and other community building and social justice subjects.
Aram seeks to extend this opportunity to as many girls as possible. She plans to offer scholarships, as well. Donations to the scholarship program may be made at ISIS-Education.org/Scholarship.html.