Dig-It! developer Jessica Dommes stands over a group of middle-school girls as they tap and swipe eagerly at an iPad; she often stops them to ask about the features of the game they were playing. Questions range from what the girls like and don’t like to whether they feel buttons are in the right place and if they understand intuitively what to do in a situation.
This is a scene from a day when Dommes participated in one of Dig-It! Games’s outreach programs, where female Dig-It! employees visit after-school tech clubs for girls at local middle schools. The programs, designed to boost girls’ participation in tech-related activities, are part of a national effort to encourage minorities and girls to enter STEM fields.
“Programming is such a broad skill set,” said Dommes, citing the variety of ways that programmers add value to popular and everyday programs, from “programming the rover on Mars” to “supporting the social media that we use on a daily basis.”
In recent years, there’s been a significant focus on STEM education. There is increasing demand for STEM professionals, but few of our kids are following that path. The Department of Education reports that only 16% of high school seniors are capable and interested in a STEM career. About half of those who do take that path change their focus in college, but Dig-It! hopes to help change that with Dommes as a shining example.
Dommes would have been one of that 84% if not for a choice made in high school. She wanted to become a game artist, but, “took computer science as a math class, because it sounded like a lot more fun than calculus,” Dommes said. “I ended up really enjoying the kinds of problems we had to solve and the different way of thinking that goes along with that.” She credits teacher Rev. Dr. Douglas Oberle with inspiring her to pursue programming. “He was really encouraging and you could tell he really wanted each of us to learn the content,” Dommes said. Dommes went on to earn a degree in game design at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY)—the first college to offer a game design undergraduate program.
Something Dommes learned early on is that, although coding seems like a solitary pursuit, the reality is that programmers rely on others to help implement their vision. “It’s interesting to me that someone can say, ‘I have an idea for a world: I can tell you about it; I can describe it; but I don’t know how to make it real,’” said Dommes. “At Dig-It! Games, we work together. Art makes it look real and programmers make it act real. It goes from being someone’s idea to letting someone else play in that world.”
Creativity, critical thinking and the ability to analyze, process and implement information are a vital part of success in STEM careers, especially when it comes to coding. That said, art, humanities and social sciences must be part of the process of helping our kids get prepared. When we encourage students to use cross-curricular content and interdisciplinary skills we create enhanced engagement and independent learners, which in turn empowers our students. This new trend of teaching kids to code may pass, but the act of empowering a student and pushing them towards self-confidence will always be in style. And part of what can help with that is bringing in real-life STEM experts and programmers to share their experiences.
Dig-It! Games takes its mission to expand STEM learning seriously: we invite kids to tour our studio and get a behind the scenes look at the technology they use every day. Kids see that STEM is more than math and science class: it’s creativity, collaboration, and creation. Our studio tours and school outreach programs endeavor to show kids the real world value of what they are learning, and to expose them to career options that take advantage of their individual skills.
Will other companies take a page out of Dig-It!’s book? No matter what happens, the longterm hope is that every programmer, CEO, and edtech company will become a STEM advocate--and join that national effort to encourage minorities and girls to enter STEM fields, in whatever way they see fit.