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EDUCATION

Bootcamps: Raising expectations for girls in math, science and technology

Girls Education

Intensive “bootcamp” training programs that develop coding and other computer science skills and directly connect students with jobs are becoming increasingly popular. In the U.S, there are already over 90 bootcamps—and they are taking root in Latin America too, helping to close the region’s skills and gender gaps.

I recently toured an all-girls bootcamp in Lima, Peru. Entering the classroom, I was impressed to see the girls busily coding away. They shared with me their dreams: to become a “full-stack developer” working with a wide spectrum of software technologies, to become a UX designer, to learn English, and to work at Facebook or Google.

They are studying at Laboratoria, a non-profit organization that runs six-month courses, with lessons lasting eight hours a day. Laboratoria targets girls from low-income families who face major barriers to accessing higher education.

Hearing how they overcame these barriers was heartwarming and inspiring. Many grew up thinking that tech sector jobs requiring math skills were beyond their reach. Some live on the outskirts of Lima and spend two or three hours commuting to class.

From their course, they learn how to build their first websites, apps, and games. They then go out into the workforce equipped with the technical skills employers demand. Just as importantly, they emerge with a newfound confidence in their ability to do math-oriented jobs.

Laboratoria combines funding from external donors with contributions from working graduates, while companies who hire graduates are starting to pay for the placement service. More than 75 percent of students get jobs as developers, which typically will lead to a tripling of their incomes.

In two years, Laboratoria has graduated 400 girls and expanded into Chile and Mexico. The organization’s founder, Mariana Costa Checa, showcased their story at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University last June. She shared a panel with Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, with then U.S. President Obama serving as panel moderator.

Such initiatives are highly welcome in Latin America. A recent World Bank report found that one in five youths in the region neither works nor goes to school. Dubbed the ‘ninis’ (‘ni estudian ni trabajan’) “The typical Latin American nini is a woman with incomplete secondary education who lives in an urban household in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.”

In the latest round of the OECD’s PISA tests for science, math, and reading skills, Latin America ranked among the worst-performing regions. Nearly half of Latin American high-school students still do not reach the minimum level of proficiency in math and science. An OECD analysis of those scores found that while gender differences in science tend to be small, girls are still under-represented in the share of top performers in science.  

After my trip to Laboratoria, I headed south to Argentina to visit Digital House (DH), a bootcamp in Buenos Aires. According to a report in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, the local IT industry can only fill about half of the seven thousand vacancies it has each year. DH was founded by employers frustrated with the skills shortage they saw among university graduates. Raising expectations for girls to engage in technology-related fields is also a priority for DH where about half of students are female.

DH has forged valuable partnerships between the public and private sectors. I was lucky enough to witness their ‘hackathon’, a two-day event sponsored by Argentina’s Ministry of Innovation, where students competed to develop financial innovation-relevant apps.

These two enterprises, with distinct business models targeting different demographics, are equally promising. They are empowering students to transform their lives and to participate in the digital revolution, which still feels so distant to many.

I believe that bootcamps, by encouraging entrepreneurship, helping to close the skills gap, and raising expectations among girls of what they can do in math, science, and technology, are a positive development that should be nurtured in all markets.

-JULIANA GUAQUETA OSPINA

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