How Torres Strait Islander Girls Are Learning To Code To Help Their Communities

How Torres Strait Islander Girls Are Learning To Code To Help Their Communities

When Aboriginals from the Torres Strait Island need support, they turn to their daughters. No, really. In a culture whose history goes back 50,000 years, 70 young girls are using technology to give their families a new way to call for help in emergencies. Last year, Engineers Without Borders Australia taught a group of students to build an emergency response beacon using basic hardware and some code to transmit a user’s location and distress message via radio.

The Torres Strait Aboriginals make up less than 3 percent of Australia’s population, and they’ve historically faced discrimination in society, including in education. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, dropout rates exceed 60 percent in certain regions and Aboriginal students are, on average, 2.5 years behind their peers in scientific and mathematical literacy. The problem is often compounded for girls, who tend to be left out of educational opportunities.

So Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWBA) set out to close the educational and digital divide, teaching the Torres Strait girls how to create emergency beacons from scratch by coding a Raspberry Pi to work with an an LED, GPS module and FM transmitter. Now, their families can use these beacons to signal if brush fires, often used for light, become widespread—or in cases of poisonous snake and spider bites.

A girl works on an LED light for one of EWBA’s projects. EWBA teaches girls in Australia to make emergency response signals by coding a Raspberry Pi to flash morse code through an LED.

This is just one example of an organisation doing extraordinary work to make computer science (CS) education available to women and other underrepresented minorities. Computer science has tremendous potential to make a real difference in the world—but only when more people can access and harness it.

That’s the idea behind Google’s RISE Awards, through which we support organisation in their work to inspire students around the world with CS. Since 2010, more than 200 organisation have received an award, and this year, 37 organisation are receiving a cumulative $1.5 million to keep this vital effort humming along. Our partners facilitate programs and activities including teaching girls about the intersection of coding and music production in California, promoting computational thinking through game-design in Mexico, and inspiring children in Brazil to program alongside their parents.

This year, three nonprofits will receive a new “RISE Partnership Award”—a grant to work with one or two partner organisation to help grow their CS outreach to a wider scale. One of the three is Engineers Without Borders Australia, which plans to work with MEET—an organisation with expertise on how coding skills can build relationships and break down stereotypes—to integrate their curriculum to reach up to 2000 girls across Australia, including in Aboriginal communities.

With access to hands-on CS education, the girls of Torres Strait are preparing themselves for the digital economy, contributing to the diversity of our future’s technology, and taking concrete steps to rise above the inequities their community has faced for decades. They’re not alone. We hope that through the RISE Awards and our other efforts to support diversity in technology, these girls and others like them can have an even greater impact. We can’t wait to see it.

This post by Roxana Shirkhoda, manager of K12/Pre-University Education Outreach at Google was republished with permission.