Informatics student aims to inspire girls to succeed in tech

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Morgan Mackaay was thinking about switching her major to Informatics when she attended a Women in Informatics student group event.

She left with not only a deeper interest in Informatics, but also an infectious sense of empowerment.

“I remember just leaving that event, feeling on top of the world, like I could go and do anything, like I could really succeed in STEM, and I wanted to re-create that for other girls.”

Mackaay set out to do just that by helping to organize a series of “Girls’ Night Out” events at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. The after-school events starting in March are aimed at girls in grades 6 through 8, and will feature guests who’ve succeeded in science, technology, engineering and math, along with hands-on activities. Mackaay wants to spark girls’ interest in not only consuming technology, but creating it.

“I think if we can teach girls to code earlier and get them excited earlier, it’s really going to change their path – at least what they believe they can do when they get to college,” Mackaay said.

Mackaay initially majored in oceanography, and enjoyed studying it, but found that she really wanted to focus more on data than on water. She switched to Informatics because it gave her a chance to apply data and technology to real-world problems and make a positive impact.

That’s already started with the Girls’ Night Out events. Energized by that Women in Informatics event, Mackaay started to think of ways she could inspire the same feeling in girls long before they reach college age. She spoke about it with her bosses from her part-time job at Computing Kids, which teaches coding skills to children in kindergarten through eighth grade in the Seattle area. Mackaay thought the idea would be a good way for Computing Kids to team with the Pacific Science Center. She had been a member of the Science Center’s Discovery Corps Club and worked there while in high school.

“It was my favorite part of high school,” she said. “I learned so much about everything, because they have everything there. You learn how to talk to different groups of people, and everyone’s so excited about science, and it’s just a place where you can really just get geeky.”

Mackaay arranged to make a presentation to the Science Center and reached out to one of her iSchool instructors, Lecturer Laura Schildkraut, to help formulate her pitch. Schildkraut, who taught Mackaay’s Professionalism in Informatics class, was impressed with her ability to pivot from her initial idea for a panel discussion for girls of all ages to more of a hands-on event targeted to girls in a narrower age range.

“She was really nimble to have the ability to just say, ‘All right, we’ll do it a different way,’” Schildkraut said. “She showed a lot of maturity and a lot of heart in terms of what she was trying to accomplish.”

Madalyn Lesman, manager of youth and family programs at the Science Center, said that while the organization already offers tech-based programs and girls-only programs, this idea stood out because it was career-focused. Mackaay wanted to tailor the events to spark an interest in not only using technology, but in pursuing careers in STEM fields.

“To see her be so proactive and come to us with a presentation and an idea and a vision for a program that we haven’t launched yet – to identify and recognize a need for it in our community and see us as a means to create that, it’s not every day we see that,” Lesman said. “I was really excited when Morgan came through our door.”

The first Girls’ Night Out events are scheduled for March 9 and May 4 at the Science Center. Each event will feature one or two presentations from speakers who work in STEM fields, followed by hands-on workshops related to the guest speakers’ careers. The events will be open both to Science Center members and non-members, and they promise to be fast-paced to keep kids’ attention. The first one features Jessica Turner, a virtual reality software engineer.

Mackaay, a “super senior” who plans to graduate in 2019, continues to be involved in lining up guests and organizing the events. She is keeping an open mind about how the events will unfold and what technologies the girls will experience.

“I have this vision, but who knows?” she said. “Maybe someone will have something that’s really just going to be a game-changer and get the girls that much more excited about it.”