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Landi Najarro

Girls Rock! This is what we teach the best and brightest high school-aged girls that come to the Girls Adventures in Math Engineering and Science (GAMES) camp held every summer at the University of Illinois. The camp is meant to expose young women to the different STEM fields and to show them that they are more than capable of pursuing careers that are predominantly thought of as “male careers.”

I have taught computer science for the last 5 years through the GAMES camp. Our goal is to inspire the girls and if learning happens along the way, it’s an added bonus. I want to inspire young women the way that I was inspired to jump into computer engineering.

My father is an electrical engineer. I would watch him work on circuits, computers, guitars, etc. I was thirsty to learn how all of it worked. Sometimes, he would ask me to hold the flashlight while he worked. I wished so badly to be as cool as my dad — the smartest man I know.

For some reason, even as I took all the math and science I could, I didn’t feel like I could reach that goal. But in the eighth grade, I built my first circuit, soldering gun in hand and a huge grin on my face. Looking back, it was probably the simplest thing I’ve ever done, but it showed me that I could be an engineer.

My path to engineering wasn’t an easy one, but don’t most people experience that? I never felt particularly discriminated against until I joined a group of all males. This group of ours would stick together through most of our college endeavors. I used to make suggestions all the time and my lack of confidence made my voice very small. I thought nobody would listen to me if I wasn’t sure of my own answer so I kept quiet. As I learned more, I became very sure of what I was doing. But when they still ignored me, I would pipe up and basically say: “PAY ATTENTION TO ME! I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.”

Even if the guy with the lowest grade made a completely absurd suggestion, the group would try his idea before even listening to mine. When I started pointing that out and challenging them, they denied it, and it forced them to take me more seriously. Teaching at the GAMES camp helped me realize that I was just as smart as the guys. At some point, I really began believing that Girls do Rock.

And it helps to realize I’m not alone. Pixo’s CEO, Lori Gold Patterson gave a talk on Women in Technology a few years ago at the Research Park, and related how when she was exploring as a college sophomore she “landed, ill-prepared in the office of one of the Engineering Deans to find out how to get started. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his feet up on his desk, and said, ‘Honey, have you considered Home Economics?’”

Just like me, Lori now sees the strength that women in technology fields can lend each other and how important it is to find our common struggle and strength. For me that watershed moment was definitely the GAMES camp. It was being surrounded by other “nerdy” women that turned the word “nerdy” into something we found empowering. It was a place where you never felt alone because you were now a part of the majority. Just getting a taste of that allowed me to endure my engineering program and be heard. I forced myself to fit into that majority. When I graduated, I did so with my peers, as an engineer in their eyes, rather than just a female engineer.

But the truth remains so: I am a female engineer, and the struggle isn’t over. We still need to close the gap between women and men in the math and science industry.

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High school-age girls are going through changes that make them feel different and awkward and they just want to fit in, which often causes them to shy away from male-dominated subjects such as math and science. Girls with strong STEM role models, especially women in technology, can help support these young women and encourage them to take the courses that prepare them for college.

GAMES camp is the perfect opportunity for young women to explore science and technology in an environment free of the all-male stigma. At camp, girls aren’t afraid to be awkward, silly, or embrace being a woman. Having a place to work side-by-side with other women is empowering, and paves the way for future women in technology. Girls rock! YES WE DO!

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