Training the Next Generation of Colombian Computer Engineers: Promising News for Women?

In the last ten years, the number of Colombian graduates in computer engineering has been steadily declining. Much like the rest of the world, Colombia´s IT needs are growing at a faster pace than its talent pool, and the country faces a looming deficit in qualified professionals to fill IT positions.

María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, addresses high school students at a technology and engineering summer camp.

María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, addresses high school students at a technology and engineering summer camp.

This problem is well-documented in the United States, where by 2018, only 61% of projected computing jobs could be filled by graduates with computing degrees. In Colombia, if the country´s IT sector continues to grow at 20% annually, it will face a deficit of 93,000 computer engineers, according to María Isabel Mejía, Colombia´s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems.

Mejía, a graduate in computer engineering from Colombia´s prestigious Universidad de los Andes, shared this figure with Colombian high schools students at a recent summer camp event to encourage more young Colombians to enter engineering and IT.

The camp is offered by Universidad de Los Andes and is open to high school students from grades 9 – 12 who are interested in learning how to use and develop IT tools. Over the course of three weeks, students take workshops in programming, animation, robotics, app development and video game development.

The purpose of the camp is to expose students to the fun side of IT, help them understand what a career in IT could be like, and dispel myths about the profession being solitary or boring. Rubby Casallas, a professor of Computer and Systems Engineering at los Andes, explained that poorly managed mandatory computer classes in high schools turn students off and contribute to misconceptions and negative stigma. Students learn basic skills like Word and Excel from undertrained staff, who students neither relate to nor admire.

Parents photograph their children's graduation ceremony from the IT summer camp.

Parents photograph their children’s graduation ceremony from the IT summer camp.

The increasing shortage of IT professionals has prompted many to notice the disproportionately low number of women studying IT and entering the IT field. At Los Andes, only 4 out of 40 new Systems and Computer Engineering students were female last year. In Colombia, women make up about 4-5% of the IT industry.

Casallas, who helps run the nonprofit Mujeres en Computacion (Women in Computing), said that multinational tech companies like Microsoft and Intel are taking the most interest in this gender imbalance, because they see a potential talent pool. Although their incentive isn’t feminism, it’s practical, they are nonetheless leading the charge in developing female talent for engineering.

Microsoft partnered with Mujeres en Computacion to conduct a study of why so few females are entering IT in Colombia. The Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies (headed by Mejía) and Los Andes are also working to boost the low numbers of women entering IT careers, through initiatives like the summer camp.

Ana Maria, age 15, demonstrates the digital apps she developed and robot she programmed during her 3 weeks at the camp.

Ana Maria, age 15, demonstrates the digital apps she and her teammates developed during her 3 weeks at the camp. The app uses Google maps and streetview to help users find the nearest hamburger.

At the 2014 camp, 7 graduates were female and 15 were male. This ratio among high school students is far better than the ratio for college students, which could bode well for the future of gender balance in IT.

Rubby also recognized that gender is not the only important barrier to IT positions—so is social class. In Colombia, social class is organized into 6 strata, 6 being the wealthiest. Nearly all students who attend Universidad de los Andes are from strata 5 and 6, as were all of the participants in the summer camp. Participants paid $400 for 3 weeks of instruction. However, cost is not likely the only barrier—access and exposure to the opportunity, free time, transportation and parental involvement are only some of the other class-related factors that usher some students into opportunities like the camp, and leave others uninvolved.

 

Ana Maria shows family and friends the robot she and her team created and programmed to dance to music.

Ana Maria shows family and friends the robot she and her team created and programmed to dance to music.

 

 

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