Feature Story

The Many Paths to Technology Careers

The founders of Curiosity Hacked talk about using collaboration, imagination and a new approach in tech teaching to inspire girls and boys.

Written by Samantha Matalone Cook and Shoshana Abrass

Samantha: Curiosity Hacked was started in the fall of 2012 in response to an overwhelming need my husband and I saw for a different kind of education. The Maker Movement was going strong, but there was very little emphasis or opportunity for skill building, community engagement, or mentoring in harmony with social, emotional, and cognitive development. We wanted to build a movement that helped to create innovators, support sustainability, and focused on every individual child’s vision of who they are and what they want to accomplish. Sometimes this means exposing them to possibilities, other times we are assisting them in accessing the knowledge or materials they need for a project they designed. Others joined our team early on. Besides my husband, who is technically quite skilled, we also worked with a roboticist and an engineer. Of this core team, two are men and two are women, and it has made all the difference.

It's Never Too Late to Switch Gears

People often ask me how I got interested in technology. After all, technology entered my life later than everyone else on my team. Art, history, humanities, archaeology, all through the channel of education has guided my passions until now. One might think this was my natural inclination, and to some extent they are right. But the reality is that my love of science and math was profound until middle school. Like many this age, I was determined to be a marine biologist. A lack of enthusiasm by my teachers, unguided and ignored social issues, and conventional teaching methods based on lecture and testing slowly killed any interest I had. I tried again in high school, the only female in the science club, where I was tolerated but not necessarily encouraged. It is no wonder I threw myself into writing and painting. In this, there were no wrong answers, no one controlling or manipulating my passion. Eventually, this translated into teaching others to find their voice, their interests, their possibilities. I began to see, however, that in many facets of education there were many struggling to marry what we know about how children learn with an increasingly technological world. Science and technology became fascinating to me, not just in application, but in possibilities. Now, not only does technology play a significant role in my career, but also in my personal life. From understanding and hacking the devices I use in my personal ecosystem, to using the lasercutter to amplify my printmaking, to learning how to program a Lilypad so that the wool hat I felted can mimic a starry night; I now strive to be the example of how it is never too late. My co-founder Shoshana Abrass, on the other hand, had a very different path.

Two Different Paths to Technology

Shoshana: My background in technology isn't at all traditional.  I didn't get a degree in engineering or CS, but I was exposed to 'making' at a very early age - of course it wasn't called that back then - and I've ended up working as a computer engineer and engineering manager for over 25 years.

The two opportunities that made the biggest difference for me were accidental.  I was lucky enough to attend Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco which had an amazing curriculum of shop classes.  For four years I studied woodworking, plumbing, architecture, and electronics alongside French and Biology.  The shop teachers treated all the students equally; I never got the slightest hint that, as a girl, I didn't need to learn about power tools or welding.   It's hard to imagine where my life would have gone without that influence.  I came out of high school with a profound self-confidence and fearlessness for making or modding things - which led, for example, to my building my own loft bed in college.

The other accidental opportunity was that although my college, Reed, didn't offer a CS degree, it did have a 24x7 computer lab.  Since there were no CS students the lab was occupied by geeks, misfits, and people who loved computer science for its own sake.  I fit right in.  I think this relaxed non-competitive environment was particularly crucial to me as a woman.  Everyone's contributions were accepted at face value, and if you wrote an interesting program, you were 'in'.  

My background is a huge influence on how I teach at CH.  I strongly believe that unstructured activities have as much value as formal projects.   In other words - playing around is incalculably valuable.   Kids have plenty of chances in school to learn how to meet imposed standards, but at CH I want to give them something different: the opportunity to daydream in an environment rich with materials, tools, and mentorship.  We do have defined projects at every Open Lab, but the magical moments are when kids have taken it all in and tell us "Why don't we do THIS instead!"  That moment of inspiration is priceless, and I try to say Yes to every idea as long as it's physically possible and safe :).  

Of course this model wouldn't work in many classrooms.  At CH we have a lot of advantages over traditional schools.  We're free to teach whatever kids are interested in or share whatever we're passionate about, and we can invest more time and money into each child because our overhead is low - mentors and administrators are volunteering their time.  That said, some of things we're doing here can be used in any classroom, and our goal is to model a way of learning that students, parents, and teachers can use anywhere.  

What's great about the collaboration between me and Sam is that our curiosity is the same, but our backgrounds are so different.  Sam knows so much about education. I have an instinctive feel for what works in maker education but she can explain why it works.  Our skills really complement each other.

Boys and Girls Learning Together

Samantha: Shoshana and I may have come to love technology in very different ways, but our commitment to setting an example for the mothers and their daughters we encounter is shared. Curiosity Hacked chose to foster a co-educational experience in our communities. For us, this serves two purposes. When boys and girls learn alongside each other in a supportive environment, we notice a respect for each other’s abilities and knowledge develops. The kids start to see each other as resources in a very collaborative (not competitive) way, regardless of gender.

The Importance of Female Mentors

We also help to train and recruit female mentors. In fact, about half of our mentors are females, and this not only benefits the girls. While offering girls a female role model is important, it is just as essential for the boys to experience knowledgeable female mentors as an essential part of their community. In all our programs, boys and girls are offered the same choices and opportunities but what makes us very different is our focus on mentorship. We make sure our kids are exposed to all kinds of skills and concepts, from space exploration to circuit design to sewing. Mentorship is the catalyst that brings kids from interest to productivity. We think this is particularly important for this next generation of girls. While much has changed, it has not changed that much. It is still incredibly hard for women to maintain careers in STEM fields. The industry is evolving, but not quickly enough. Even if a girl decides to launch into a STEM career, she will most likely still encounter gender biased, lower wages, and often an incompatibility with family life due to inflexible work schedules and little to no family leave. Shoshana and I believe that we can help change this divide. That if we focus on empowering girls (and boys!) with the values I mentioned above (creativity, innovation, sustainability ethos, design thinking, etc) we will help create a new, collaborative workforce that demands better. Not every girl we meet needs to work in a STEM field, but we believe every kid should understand the world we are launching them into.


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