Cass County Democrat Missourian

Tech companies encourage teens to aim high at DigiGirlz event

Lee’s Summit High School student Lauren Bryant puts Bits the hamster back in his cage. Lauren talked with girls from around the metro about her project using sensors to monitor Bits.
Lee’s Summit High School student Lauren Bryant puts Bits the hamster back in his cage. Lauren talked with girls from around the metro about her project using sensors to monitor Bits. Special to The Star

Can your hamster tweet? Ever gotten bored with Hasbro’s Operation game and wired your own version? For the teen attendees at last week’s DigiGirlz event at Johnson County Community College, the answer might be, “Yes.”

The Microsoft-sponsored event gathered 122 teen girls in eighth to 12th grade from around the metro area April 11 to encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology.

“It’s really inspirational for a girl to see how many opportunities there are,” said Maddy Fisher, a student from Olathe North.

Her classmate, Ella Rausch, was impressed with how different some of the jobs were.

“It’s not just sitting at a computer typing code,” Ella said.

Local companies such as Valorem Reply and Burns & McDonnell partnered with the tech giant for the day.

“We want to show them it’s not just Microsoft saying, ‘You need to stay in technology.’ We have big corporations coming in and saying, ‘We agree,’” said Mary Mathiowetz, community engagement manager for Microsoft.

It was a sampler of what they could be working on in the tech arena in just a few years — or even right now.

In one session, Zoey Sears, 15, Lauren Bryant, 16, and Martie Schreckenghaust, 15, explained projects they’re working on at Lee’s Summit High School to the other girls.

For Lauren and Martie, it’s using sensors to monitor hamsters’ activity and linking that data to social media. Lauren tracks how much one hamster eats, while Martie’s sensor records how much another hamster runs in a wheel.

“If he is exercising less and less than his average, then we can check if he’s sick or if he’s been injured, and with that, we can help him get better,” Lauren said.

Zoey’s project involved designing system where a heart-rate sensor can either trigger an automatic text or an alert to a service dog’s collar when the change in heart rate indicates that a person is having an anxiety attack.

“When you are going through that… you have a higher chance of not being able to communicate that you are having that. I wanted to figure out a way so you could,” Zoey said.

She’s not finished, but she’s interested in exploring it further.

Martie said presenting to the other girls felt natural to her, because she’s used to talking with other girls about STEM topics as part of the Girls Who Code computer science program.

“I think passing the hamster around helped break the awkwardness that might have been there,” Lauren said.

In addition to the student presenters, there were plenty of professionals on hand to give the attendees a taste of what it’s like to work in tech right now.

At one demonstration, girls got the chance to try out a HoloLens augmented reality device to look inside a running engine. It’s similar to Pokémon Go, but is used with a virtual reality-type headset.

A hands-on activity from Burns & McDonnell got the girls constructing circuits to assemble something similar to the board game of Operation. Other sessions had attendees brainstorming ideas for wearable tech and talking about how tech companies have affected the business landscape.

One key point of the day was that there isn’t just one job or one approach for women in the technology fields.

After they got the chance to experience the different activities, the girls stuck around for a few hours to network with women who are professionals in various kinds of tech-related jobs.

DigiGirlz is bigger than Kansas City. Last year, more than 14,000 girls participated in 42 countries.

“The goal of this is to really support young women in technology,” Mathiowetz said. “We’re losing girls as they get older.”