Tech conference organized by girls for girls

Not all girls have equal access to opportunity. Not all girls are supported to pursue their interests in science and technology. A team of four UTS students aimed to help change that with this year’s annual Girls in Tech Conference (GITCon), organized by teen girls for girls in Grades 6 to 8 who want to learn about technology.

“I wanted to help girls who don’t have access to opportunities in technology,” says Laia, an S5 (Grade 11) UTS student who was a Co-director of this year’s event, “and level the playing field for girls from all backgrounds.”

Break through stereotypes

Held over four days from May 28 to 31, the event “exposed girls to tech and STEM fields to show them they have many different opportunities and future paths that they can take that might help them break through the stereotypes,” says S6 (Grade 12) student Flavia, who also co-directed the event.

S6 (Grade 12) student Flavia, a Co-director of the Girls in Technology Conference

GITCon’s mission aims to address the reality that women are far from equally represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, by getting them excited about the possibilities at a younger age. Keeping Doors Open, a 2020 report from the Girl Guides of Canada found that girls as young as 13 are making academic decisions that can impact their ability to pursue STEM fields of study and careers in the future.

Record attendance: nearly 170 girls

This year, Laia, Flavia and team members M4 (Grade 10) students Anne-Marie and Grace faced a new challenge: transforming GITCon into an online conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Opening the virtual doors to girls across Ontario, they were able to broaden their reach to a record number of girls. Nearly 170 took part, including some from as far away as Ottawa, Windsor and Guelph.

Making it interactive

Orchestrating the first online version of GITCon was a challenge, says Flavia. There was no plan in place to follow. After a couple of months’ experience with Zoom calls and Google meetings, she says they knew they had to get creative to make the conference engaging for participants. “We tried to make the activities very hands on, and made sure that even girls who didn’t have access to technology or devices could still take part.”

They went with a lighter schedule, with just one workshop or event per day, and worked with Dr. Cresencia Fong, UTS’ Head of Teacher Learning, Technology, and Research, and her team on the technological aspects, as well as Head of Student Life Garry Kollins and Administrative Assistant Kevin Brice. Flavia adds: “Because we couldn’t have the girls in person this year, we tried to make it more interactive with platforms like Discord. We made it a big group chat, so we could talk with the girls who participated.”

Heidi Kenkel, of the STEAM Project, leads the girls virtually through the 3D printing workshop

Hands-on workshops

The Grade 6 to 8 girls created 3D printing designs using TinkerCAD in a workshop hosted by the STEAM Project, a non-profit organization that that encourages youth to improve the lives of others through hands-on experiences with new and emerging technology. The initial theme of PPE expanded to include designs like a necklace pendant that stores hand sanitizer, a glove-grabber that helps people take off gloves without touching them, and even a teddy bear for the workshop presenters. The STEAM Project printed and mailed the designs to participants after the conference.

Andrea Schmoll, a Team Lead Game Designer at Ubisoft Toronto, led a workshop on the fundamentals of game design, while Sonya Carey, owner of The Animation Lounge, shared how to use Toon Boom Harmony animation software in her session.

Take risks, take chances

The final day wrapped up with a panel question and answer session with successful women working in technology including Sonya; UTS alumna Lisa Jeffrey ’82, a mathematics professor at the University of Toronto; Carmen Young, a VP in quantitative analytics at RBC Capital Markets; and Betty Yang, a Core Network Capacity Planner at Rogers Communications.

Sonya told participants: “Don’t worry about what other people are doing, what’s meant to be normal for girls. I don’t know what that means. For me, I was not afraid to take some risks. If there was a room full of men doing the job I was doing, which is quite common in animation, I never really thought about it. I just joined in.”

A lot of us are shy to speak up about ideas, she said. “I had to break through that. I actually had some really good ideas when I was not afraid to voice them… Take some risks, take some chances and don’t be afraid to go where no one else has gone before.”