AUSTIN (KXAN) — A few big tech companies are handing over the control-ler to elementary school girls in hopes to keep them interested in STEM as they grow up.

“We just wanna keep that whole ecosystem of girl power going,” Dell Education Strategist Katina Papulkas said.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

(Dell Technologies, Microsoft, Intel)

In Papulkas’ role as a female educator with Dell, she continues to see the narrative, “Okay, c’mon girls, stay in STEM,” which has been a struggle.

“The reality is 50% of our population are female in the workforce, but only around 20% are in STEM-related fields. Unfortunately, those numbers are on the decline. And when we get to visible minorities, those numbers go down even lower to 11%,” Papulkas said.

Dell Technologies, which is headquartered in Round Rock, teamed with Microsoft and Intel in 2019 to create an extra-curricular program called Girls Who Game (GWG). Through it, the companies hope to create a more inclusive tech industry.

Why gaming?

Young girls either lack access to education tools or have the perception that STEM is better suited for boys, Dell states. So, the company turned to video games.

Its GWG program uses a specific one, “Minecraft: Education Edition,” as a tool to teach the girls communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills.

The girls look at the United Nations’ sustainable development goals as course material and motivation, Papulkas said.

She said this past fall, clubs created an “eatery of the future.” The girls focused on hunger issues and clean drinking water in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic — how to make the eatery sustainable, accessible and inclusive.

The tech companies want to develop the girls’ tech skills, achieve digital literacy, and inspire them to become change-makers.

“As a woman, as a mom of two girls, I want to see girls involved here and engaged so that when we walk into a meeting space or when decisions are being made about new technologies or problems that we’re experiencing, we have 50% of a voice. We have women in there helping to make those decisions and we need to start now if we want to have this happen,” Papulkas said.

(Dell Technologies, Microsoft, Intel)

Local students’ reaction to the program

Dell has a goal to make 50% of its workforce female, Papulkas said. In order to do that, the company is focusing on early elementary grades.

The program currently operates in 72 school districts across the US and Canada. Austin has a particularly strong program, Dell stated. The company provides personal computers to students who need them to participate and helps craft the curriculum.

Local fourth-graders, Grace Tu and Ava Maci Thomas, are benefitting from the program. Both attend Lee Elementary in Austin.

Thomas said she’s inspired seeing many other girls in STEM.

“I really like how you can interact with your friends and do something that you really love to do,” she said. “If you’ve had a stressful day at school, you can just let it all out there, tell them about how you’re feeling, cause you have friends there who won’t judge you for what you want to do or what your ideas are.”

Tu, who never played Minecraft before the program, had difficulty at first but then things improved.

“The other girls helped me out and it started to become fun. And every Friday, during school, we would meet and play Minecraft together. It was really fun how we would just work together and problem solve and build things.”

“We have to create safe communities of practice where they feel they can build their skills, where they’re not going to be laughed at, where they can build their confidence,” Papulkas said.

Women mentors and role models are key to the program’s success, she said. Each tech company involved asked its female employees if they wanted to be mentors and role models and many stepped forward. The companies also reached out to women in IT departments at school districts. The program aims to effectively integrate game-based learning into the core content curriculum at schools.

Papulkas said the companies welcome people to become mentors. If you’re interested, you can find out more info about the program on its website or apply here.