Teaching data science through the lens of social justice issues

Girls Inc of New York City and the Elsevier Foundation partner to teach girls data analytics skills

Girls Inc students in NYC
High school students Maryrose and Ester analyze data after compiling it from a database on out-of-school suspension rates in America. (© girlsinnyc.org)

When Esther, a native of the Bronx, started high school, she struggled with math. The difficulties she experienced fed into her frustration, causing her to lose confidence in a vicious cycle.

I noticed people understanding the problems and getting the answer quicker than I was, and that was really discouraging. It made me more insecure about my math skills, and everything just become harder and harder.

Unfortunately, Ester’s experience is not unique. This, and other factors, have led to a dearth of women in the STEM workforce – a problem Girls Inc and the Elsevier Foundation are addressing with a new program in New York City.

Women hold just 26% of data science-related jobs, and minority women have a bleaker employment picture, according to a 2017 report by AAUW. In 2017, less than one in 10 women in the data workforce were minorities: Asian (5%), African American (3%) and Hispanic (1%).

Through its programming, Girls Inc, a nonprofit serving girls ages 6 to18 at more than 1,400 sites in 400 cities across the United States and Canada, has prepared girls to study in STEM fields and attain college and postgraduate degrees.

Over the past four years, Girls Inc of New York City has introduced hundreds of high school girls in grades 10 to 12 to the field of data analytics through Generation Giga Girls (G3): The Moody’s Data Analytics Program. However, the demand for more programming, serving more girls at an even earlier age, is at an all-time high.

To achieve this, Girls Inc of New York City is now partnering with the Elsevier Foundation to launch Pre-G3: The Elsevier Foundation Data Analytics Preparatory Program, a first-of-its-kind introduction to data analytics for girls as young as 8th grade.

The mission of Girls Inc of New York City is to inspire girls to be strong, smart and bold. The Elsevier Foundation’s longstanding focus on diversity in STEM fields and an emerging emphasis on data analytics ensured a strong partnership fit. Low-income and underserved girls often lack the basic skills required to thrive in intensive programs like G3: the Pre-G3 program offers girls tangible skills at a lower developmental level to prepare them for the concepts they will encounter in the high school program.

The 8th grade is a crucial year for most students. According to a research report by ACT, students who are not on track for college and career readiness by 8th grade are unlikely to attain that level of readiness by high school graduation. This is a time when students are starting to get harder academic coursework, are often being exposed to competing priorities with increasing responsibility at home and increased social pressure among peer groups, and are learning to develop time management and organizational skills. Programs like these are vital in navigating this challenging time.

Ylann Schemm, Director of the Elsevier Foundation, underscored this importance: “Girls Inc of NYC created an incredibly compelling case for a data analytics prep trajectory. Their track record speaks for itself, and we’re very excited to support the critical expansion of their program to younger teens.”

Ester, who is now in 10th grade, made it a priority to get better at math, enrolling in the Girls Inc G3 program. Now she’s immersing herself in data analytics projects with a social justice focus, such as the wage gap in the United States, gentrification of Central Harlem, school suspension rates based on gender and ethnicity, and the lack of women of color in the tech pipeline.

It wasn’t until I spoke to my Girls Inc facilitator about my frustration with math that I realized I was better at it than I thought I was. In fact, me having to break down each and every problem piece by piece was what made me unique. We’ve only just started the G3 Data Analytics program, but I can already tell that this is the space for me.

Ester logs onto to the G3 Data Analytics Website to begin her data lesson. (© girlsincnyc.org)

When you walk into a G3 classroom, students are engaged and excited. They are using the vocabulary, asking thoughtful and enthusiastic questions, challenging their peers and showing a love for learning. The key to the program’s success is its cultural responsiveness. The curriculum was intentionally created to address one of the biggest barriers to girls of color entering STEM fields, as there is a perceived lack of equity in STEM fields. Girls of color don’t think about pursuing careers in STEM because they are regularly told and shown that there are no women of color in STEM.

There are five core components of the G3 curriculum. These include culturally responsive teaching and a focus on mentoring. Teachers know how to communicate high expectations to students: many youths in marginalized communities are used to teachers not believing in their capability, but when high achievement is expected, students perform.

Another key factor is anchoring the curriculum in the everyday lives of students, teaching data science through the lens of social justice issues, contemporary culture and developmentally appropriate topics. Students learn to assess whether GPA is fair, for instance, or if black and Latino students have higher suspension rates than their white counterparts, and they study trends in social media use among teens. Examples of scientists who are women of color and culturally relevant field trips are woven throughout. Monique W, a G3 alumna who is attending Tuskegee University, a historically black university in Alabama, wrote:

In G3, I learned about Mae C. Jemison, and she became my life’s inspiration. As the first African American to go into outer space, she made me believe that if she could do it, I could too. I want to be an Astronaut at NASA, so I will be attending Tuskegee University in the fall to study Aerospace Engineering.

Lastly, in a Girls Inc classroom, control of learning is shared with students. Girls perform better academically and behaviorally when they play a role in building the curriculum. Vianca G, a G3 alumna studying at The College at Brockport, New York, wrote:

In the G3 Girls Inc program, I was able to assist a software engineer on developing the website for our program. Every day I contributed feedback on how to improve the website of virtual lessons on statistics from situations in our everyday lives.

Through this partnership, we are sparking girls’ interest in data analytics at an earlier age, building tangible skills, and preparing girls to thrive in college, the workforce and beyond.



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