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Ottawa tech charity strives to get girls into STEM at young age

As technology spreads further and further into our daily lives it’s as important as ever that girls are exposed to digital literacy and skills at a young age.

On International Women’s Day, Actua and its CEO want young girls and their parents to know just how to successfully engage in this booming field.

According to a study from Statistics Canada, women are proportionately under-represented among science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates compared to other fields.

Actua is a charity that’s headquartered in Ottawa in the Byward Market. Its primary goal is to prepare youth to be innovators and leaders by engaging them in STEM experiences.

While, overall, this includes children of all genders, CEO Jennifer Flanagan has spent the better part of her career creating opportunities for young girls in STEM. The bulk of this work is done through outreach programs across the country.

“Science and technology literacy are important foundational skills,” said Flanagan. “Regardless of what future career girls are going to go into, they’re going to need basic literacy in science, technology and math.”

“In this country, we happen to have a huge amount of our economy that is based in STEM fields. We do not want girls to continue to be left out.”

According to Flanagan, at a young age the world of STEM is very accessible for girls, but as soon as they hit later childhood and early teens, they begin to face pressure to divert from tech.

Pressure can come in many forms, from society at large to men in STEM to even their own parents, who may not have a full understanding of the importance of tech literacy and the potential that it brings.

“They get various forms of messaging — sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not,” said Flanagan. “Even from parents, though it’s not intentionally bad, things like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t particularly good at math so you won’t be, either.’”

“If they don’t see themselves in these fields, then it’s very hard for them to imagine a role for them to play. For us, it’s about having a conversation with girls to say: ‘You are just as good at this as boys are’ and giving them the experience to build skills and confidence.”

Flanagan went on to say that Actua also informs the girls that there may be pushback, and the program teaches them how to appropriately deal with it if that is the case.

Tech toys

Actua encourages parents to invest in STEM-themed toys for their children in order to foster passion and interest in the field. Actua actually puts out a STEM toy list for parents to go through.

Every toy has an educational aspect and is either used in Actua’s programs or tested by the organization.

Books, according to Flanagan, are always an important step. Reading about a subject is one of the best ways to surround the child with exposure to science.

In an interview with Global News, Flanagan referenced a USB microscope that plugs into a smartphone so children can satisfy their curiosity on the go.

She also didn’t discount the value of a good, old-fashioned LEGO set or even Nintendo’s new Labo program.

“Each toy allows children to produce things and experiment with science where they’re constructive or solving problems,” said Flanagan. “Anything where they’re constructing something is key.”

What Actua does

Actua delivers programs across the country in over 500 communities, engaging girls and boys in STEM by getting children to participate in a variety of hands-on activities.

Actua offers both a co-ed program and an all-girls program.

The camps are offered across the country to participants from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Programs are also offered through schools across Canada. Through Actua’s network of member-based organizations, about 9,000 schools per year offer its programs and use them to enhance their formal curriculum.

Through Actua’s outreach team, these programs are also brought into areas that aren’t covered by its member organizations. This includes Indigenous and northern communities.

According to Actua’s website, the company works in partnership with these communities by engaging local Indigenous volunteers and elders to share their traditional knowledge and integrate cultural experiences into the camps offered.

For more information on Actua, visit their website.

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