Sarita Nair-Pillai always knew a career in science or technology was in her future. “A real motivator was my family and my cultural background,” says Nair-Pillai, who is from India and was born and raised in Bahrain. “There’s a strong emphasis in Indian families to achieve and succeed academically, and real expectations are put on young people. I never had a sense I would do anything else.”
Her perspective on gender and technology careers changed, however, when she came to the United States. “It was a revelation in college when I realized I was one of only four other women receiving computer science degrees in my graduating class,” she says. “I wasn’t aware of gender-based stereotypes before. Now that drives me in the work I do. Half the battle is to get young people interested in math and science and engaged in it.”
Nair-Pillai joined EDC in 2001, bringing her skills in software development and training to the Gender, Diversities & Technology Institute. One of the initiatives she’s developed is The FunWorks—a digital resource library designed to encourage middle school students to explore math and science careers by showing how these subjects, often perceived as “geeky,” have real-world connections in art, games, music, sports, and other things that interest kids.
How did you decide to transition out of the high-tech industry and into education?
Early on, I’d considered a career in teaching but never pursued it. I worked as a computer scientist for the telecom industry doing software development, training, business development, and sales. In my personal life, I volunteered at the library and with Citizen Schools, teaching basic computer skills and doing English-language tutoring. After 10-plus years in the high-tech machine, I was beginning to burn out. I was at a turning point: I wanted to see if I could work with technology in a different way. Rather than create it and train people to use it and sell it, I thought I could use technology to do more of what I was doing in my volunteer work. I wanted to pursue my interest around using the power of technology to transform lives.
I knew about EDC from living in Boston and from knowing a few people who worked here. EDC seemed like the type of place that would allow me to combine my academic training and background as a computer scientist with my interest in education. I took a position to develop the NSF-funded Gender & Science Digital Library, a resource for K–16 educators and students to get young people, particularly girls, interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. It was the perfect pairing of my understanding of the technology landscape with my interest in using technology to build tools for living and learning.
Let’s talk about The FunWorks. What is it and how did it develop?
A lot of career preparation and training happens in high school. But middle school is the formative time to start making choices about high school courses. So we received a grant from NSF to develop a digital resource library for middle school students to get them more interested in STEM education and careers. We focused on young people in underrepresented populations—girls, minorities, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, youth with disabilities. A very exciting aspect of the work was involving the young people from the get-go in the project design, development, and pilot testing.
How did your youth advisors help shape the final product?
We talked to students around Massachusetts and asked them what they thought about careers, how they used technology, what they like to do on a Web site, how they like to see a website organized. We then assembled a youth co-design team of four girls and four boys at a community technology center in Roxbury, a section of Boston. They were not just our audience, they were our co-creators. We organized the site around the things that they talk to their friends about—games, music, sports, forensics, the environment—not “math careers” and “science careers.” We used real-world examples to show how science is part of their lives, for example the physics behind how Venus Williams holds her tennis racket so she can hit the ball the hardest. We tried to dispel stereotypes that people who work in these careers are solitary people in white lab coats.
The FunWorks launched in 2005. It’s received acclaim from Cisco (it was included in their campaign to encourage girls to pursue technology careers) and the National Science Teachers Association. It’s successful because of our youth co-design team. If we’d gone off in a vacuum and created a product we thought users needed, this wouldn’t have happened.
What’s the most challenging thing about your work with youth and technology?
The hardest thing is to raise young people’s self-esteem and to make them believe that they can do things and do them well. They might not be the smartest person in school or have the best grades, but they may be good leaders, good writers, good teachers, or critical thinkers. Those skills are valid in the workplace. We want kids to persevere even if they’re in the minority or the environment doesn’t support them. We hope to give them the confidence and ability to stay the course through high school and college and in their first job. If you don’t do that, what happens to them when they leave your program? We want to see kids stand on their own.