Girl at Computer
April 03, 2015

Entrepreneurs Among Us

Female Students Launch Mobile Apps
by Jenny Barker

During the spring of 2015, approximately 30 female students at PA are participating in the Technovation Challenge, a global competition that encourages female students to work in teams to solve real-world problems through technology. One of the main benefits of bringing the program to PA is that it engages students, in a fun and practical way, in the professional world of computer science. The program kicked off in that spirit in February with an event at the Microsoft NERD Center that featured interactions between students and female tech entrepreneurs.

The question of how to engage girls and women more fully in computer science is a common concern in the United States. According to recent data, only 18.5 percent of high school girls take the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. In college, only 12 percent of students who earn computer science degrees are female. But new research shows that positive, early experiences with math and science can increase the chance that women stay in their related fields long-term.

“We need to get girls involved in computer science early,” said Maria Litvin, Mathematics and Computer Science Instructor at PA, who brought the program to the Academy for the first time and is serving as its coach. “Technovation Challenge gives students the kind of introduction to the computer science field that makes them want more.”

Litvin also noted how thrilled she was by the significant number of PA girls who voluntarily signed up to take part in the program. About half of the girls had never taken any kind of programming class, and all of the participants are taking on the challenge in addition to their regular studies and extracurricular activities.

It’s a competition, but at the same time everyone will gain something by the end of it, whether that’s entrepreneurial skills, or knowledge on coding, said Cindy Espinosa ’18. “Before Technovation I had no idea what was out there for a woman in technology; meeting female entrepreneurs in person makes it feel like I can eventually get to where they are.

In the span of just twelve weeks, students are tasked with accomplishing four key goals:

  • To create a mobile application, either for an Android or an iPhone, that solves a problem in their communities.
  • To think like entrepreneurs by evaluating market research and then creating a business plan to sell their product.
  • To collaborate with a team of people with whom they have not previously worked.
  • To present their work to a panel of judges in a public forum.

Each of the six teams includes four or five students and one or two women mentors who are working professionally in technology and business. Together the teams are deliberating on mobile app ideas that range from ways to prevent food waste to how to control peer pressure. Once they test their various ideas and settle on the most viable mobile app plan, the girls will turn to the complex tasks of programming the app and launching it into the marketplace. As they move from concept to creation and real-world application in the coming weeks, students will equally get to learn about and to experience firsthand the ins and outs of a startup.

“In startups, I’ve seen many people pivot from what they studied in college because they weren’t offered practical experience until their first job,” said one of the team mentors, Michelle Darby ’07, CEO of Roomzilla, a company she cofounded to provide a cloud-based, dynamic solution for managing conference room reservations. “Technovation Challenge offers that kind of experience. These students are already exploring many of the tools, skills, and processes we use daily in the professional world to build real products and companies.”

Two other mentors, Nancy Alpert and Erin McCloskey ’90, are employed in leadership roles in the Technology Officeat PA. Working together on one of the teams, they see themselves as sounding boards and are focused on ensuring that everyone is getting something out of it.

“Our team of girls has lots of entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of ideas about serving the unique needs of adolescent girls in this community; as mentors we want to help them to understand the process a bit more, to make it more concrete, to put it in a real-world context given our experience in the field,” said McCloskey.

As Litvin rolls out the program for the first time on campus and delights in the adventure these 30 students are embarking on, she said that finding funding support, particularly for some of the students’ technology needs, was crucial. A partnership with the Tang Institute, therefore, seemed like a natural next step.

This is just the type of enrichment opportunity the Tang Institute aims to collaborate on and help foster throughout PA,” said Caroline Nolan, director of the Tang Institute. “As a hub for entrepreneurial exploration, our goal is to help faculty engage students in real-world learning experiences that empower students not just to think like innovators but to be innovators.

Upon the conclusion of the challenge, the girls could continue to build upon their mobile apps’ successes in a number of ways. They could, for instance, apply for an Abbot Grant to continue developing and testing their app or they could use a Kickstarter campaign or another crowdsource mechanism to help bring their app to the public. With some minor tweaks, the girls’ designs might be applicable to other schools or other markets, if they want to take their apps in these directions.

The Technovation Challenge will conclude with two events this spring. Students will present their mobile apps to the PA community on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at 5 p.m., Paresky Commons, Mural Room, and to a panel of judges on Friday, May 1, in Cambridge. For more information about the Technovation Challenge, visit:

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