Recently, there has been a great deal of research on the ways poverty impacts the minds and mental development of children. The emerging science shows that for some children, stresses associated with living in poverty and in an environment of uncertainty can cause physical changes to still developing brains. But, because of the brain’s ability to adapt, environmental factors that adversely impact the brain can be combated. Effective programming can help counteract the impact of these stresses and create a supportive environment that allows youth, regardless of socio-economic level, to thrive.

The Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) is providing exactly the type of programming that can help county students thrive.  HOC partnered with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to offer “Girls Got IT!” to HOC’s youth. Through this partnership, 17 girls in Kindergarten through 12th grade participated in monthly group meetings to tackle various computer and engineering projects. Between October 2015 and April 2016, participants created their own mobile apps, learned computer coding, went on educational field trips and benefited from NCWIT’s near-peer model. The near-peer model, in which high school and college aged women teach computer skills to younger girls, is seen to increase girls’ confidence in their skills and foster mentoring,

The first cohort of girls celebrated completion of the program on April 30th. And, with NCWIT support, HOC will expand “Girls Got IT!” and introduce these programs to another cohort of school-aged girls. Through new grant funding from NCWIT, HOC will launch two “Girls Got IT!” summer programs focused on girls in grades 2-8. With the addition of the summer programs, 32 more girls will develop new skills and engage in new challenges.

A program like “Girls Got IT!” has two effects. It provides the supportive and enriching environment that helps counteract the negative impacts of poverty on the brain, but also encourages girls to take an interest in computers and technology. In her editorial “The Only Girl at Her Science Camp”, Lara N. Dotson-Renta writes of the way children are limited in their play by gender-specific marketing. For instance, far too often technology related toys or chemistry sets are located in aisles designated for boys. She notes that this results in society telling youth that gender does not matter with regard to professional and educational opportunities, but it does matter in what hobbies and interests children choose to pursue. “Girls Got IT!” strives to show girls that it is ok, and also fun, to pursue computer and technology oriented hobbies.

Girls comprise 56% of all Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers; however they represent only 20% of high school students taking the AP Computer Science exam. The gap continues to grow in college. Nationally, women earned less than 20% of all computer and information sciences bachelor’s degrees in 2014. Closing this gender gap across in-demand and lucrative STEM-related fields will open new opportunities for girls in HOC programs. “Girls Got IT!” makes the idea of studying computer science and IT a reality and offers exciting possibilities for the futures of young women.