International Women's Day: SFU helps to close the STEM gender gap

March 08, 2016

Creating opportunities for young women to get more involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities will go a long way in helping close the gender gap in STEM, says Nicole Fonseca, a student at West Vancouver's Rockridge Secondary School.

Simon Fraser University is providing one of those opportunities through Technovation, a 12-week app competition that commenced in January. This initiative invites local girls ages 10-18 to work in teams with tech industry mentors to learn how to code and develop an app that addresses a local community issue. The winning team receives $10,000 in venture capital funding to get the app developed.

One of the teams is working with Appnovation, a Vancouver tech start up, on an app to help ease the transition for Syrian refugees into our local community.

“The app provides transit schedules, shows what Canadian money looks like, locates services and resources, such as Arabic-speaking doctors,” says Fonseca. “I hope our app will help the Syrians feel welcome.”

Learning something new can often be exciting and challenging. Fonseca says that learning how to code is a lot like learning a new language, but credits her mentors as great role models that have helped her team overcome those challenges along the way.

Industry mentor Rose Nguyen from Appnovation, far right, helps her Technovation team from Rockridge Secondary School refine their app that helps Syrian refugees settle into Vancouver more easily.

“Having so many wonderful mentors from Appnovation, SFU and our own school who are female really showcases the type of support young women have if they choose to enter the STEM field.”

Fonseca’s team will present their app and business proposal in front of a panel of judges in April for a chance to travel to Silicon Valley to face other Technovation finalists. Technovation makes its selection of finalists based on video pitches from around the world.

“This is the first year SFU is managing Technovation and we wanted to attract female students from the Lower Mainland,” says SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences outreach manager Daniela Abasi. “We were surprised by the flood of interest from both the students and female industry mentors. Technovation is filling a unique niche and has grown to include 5400 girls from 28 countries.”

Initiatives like Technovation aim to get more women interested in STEM to help support gender equality in a male dominated STEM industry that is currently comprised of 22 percent women and 78 percent men—despite the Canadian workforce being almost equal.

Over the years, SFU’s Faculty of Applied Sciences (FAS) has taken an active role with managing a variety of outreach initiatives, in addition to Technovation, such as Go Eng Girl and Girls Get IT—these initiatives have reached 580 girls since 2011.

These collective efforts have increased the percentage of female undergraduate students in FAS programs. Between 2010 and 2014, females in engineering science increased from 13.2 percent to 17.8 percent; computing science increased from 15.7 percent to 17 percent; and mechatronic systems engineering increased from 7.7 percent to 9.3 percent.

Lesley Shannon, professor and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for the BC/Yukon Region, says that SFU’s outreach to inform and engage girls K-12 in STEM activities is extremely valuable. She leads the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology program.

“We want to impress girls from a young age that STEM is fun and exciting,” she says. “The earlier we start to engage with young girls to view STEM in this way, the more likely they will see themselves as suited to and interested in STEM fields and choose to pursue these degrees and careers.”

If you are interested in learning more about Technovation and SFU FAS's work towards helping create gender equality in the STEM industry please see the articles below:

CBC - SFU Technovation competition aims to get more girls into tech

CBC (~24:30) - SFU engineering professor Lesley Shannon discusses the importance of Canadian women engaging in science and technology sectors

/story by University Communications