Young girls interested in robotics and developing “apps” for iPhones will get the chance, thanks to a new program launching in the Austin community.

The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago is rolling out its popular TechGYRLS program at the agency’s West Side service center, 5080 W. Harrison. TechGYRLS is a free after-school program geared toward girls, 9-14, interested in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The center hosted an open house on Jan. 10, showcasing the software, gadgets and gizmos the all-girls program will be using. Participants learn robotics, computer programming, engineering, graphic design and Microsoft Office Suite, including Excel, Word and PowerPoint.

The program is divided into two 10-week sessions. The first session began on Tuesday and will meet twice a week.

The Austin location is a new site for the 4-year-old program that began in 2005 in the Woodlawn community. A second center is located in Glendale Heights.

Computer instructor Tonya Yolo said the Y wanted to expand the program to the West Side since opportunities like this do not exist in the Austin area. Yolo hopes to expand the program’s offering to other West Side communities.

“All the other communities have something to focus the young ladies on, and the young ladies here just don’t have that,” she said.

The program aims to reverse the sinking number of women in technology and the sciences. Women make up half the U.S. workforce but account for 22 percent in the science, engineering and computer professions.

That low number, Yolo contends, stems from the way schools present the sciences and technology to young girls, which “may have put them off.” TechGYRLS does not present math as “one plus two equals three,” she said.

The program presents math, science and technology as tools used everyday, even in shopping. Girls in the programs are tasked with creating a dream bedroom, creating a budget and tracking their spending using Excel. Now, Yolo explained, girls are using math and technology such as the Web to research and compare prices, which results in good decision-making.

“And that’s how it piques their interest in math,” she said.

Girls in the program learn on the latest software, such as PhotoShop, a photo-editing program, and DreamWeaver, a Web design program, which will give them a competitive edge in school.

“Access to the sort of software we have and the skills we are teaching are nowhere to be found for free, and are nowhere to be found for girls,” added Courtney Nelson, a CTC instructor at the South Side center.

While TechGYRLS exposes young girls to technology, it also allows students to explore their creative side. Nelson noted that one 12-year-old student will study in Japan for a year because of her interest in all things “Japanime,” a style of drawing derived from Japanese comic books.

As part of the program, students create blogs where they upload their graphic art projects. This student’s blog was sprinkled with images from Japanese culture, an interest that sparked teasing from classmates, Nelson said.

“She got to express that part of her personality and her individuality in a way that she hadn’t been able to in school,” she said. “She has kind of been labeled the weird girl because of that.”

That freedom of expression allows painfully shy girls to break out their shell while others have achieved academic successes, Nelson added. She noted one seventh-grader came to the program failing math but graduated with “B.”

“We usually see one- to two-grade letter changes on average,” Nelson said, of students in the program.

TechGYRLS is the kind of program Austin mom Valerie Young was looking for. Young already has one daughter college graduate perusing a career in criminal forensics. She wanted her two youngest daughters’ time on the computer to be more productive than posting to Facebook.

“Technology is where the future is going to end up,” said Young, who left her South Side job an hour earlier to get her daughters, Shannon, 15, and Rosalyn, 14, to the open house. “I think you miss out if you don’t get into technology. Technology is more than a door. It is a gateway.”

Young’s daughter, Shannon, is a self-described computer whiz. The Michele Clark High School sophomore said she is the go-to person to fix computers. She hopes to channel that skill into a career in computer forensics.

“There is more to computers than [surfing] the Internet,” she said.

To learn more

  • To register for the second session, call 773-379-3379.