Young Bangor women embark on careers in technology, hope others will follow suit

Posted July 16, 2014, at 4:08 p.m.
Last modified July 17, 2014, at 11:17 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — On a rainy Tuesday morning, 11 current and incoming John Bapst Memorial High School students gathered in a classroom in their nearly empty school building to learn how to build robots.

They were participating in a week-long summer technology camp meant to get freshmen and sophomore students interested in the school’s array of tech-related clubs and course offerings.

There are hundreds of technology-focused camps across the country, according to the website, but there is something unique about this camp: all the students are girls.

“This is more girls than I’ve ever seen in my entire career here,” said Michael Murphy, engineering and technology department chair at John Bapst. He has been teaching at the school for eight years and is helping out with the week-long camp. “Usually I get two or three.”

The other component that sets this program apart is that it is run by a rising senior, Karen Noble, 17, who decided to organize it after brainstorming with Murphy about how to get more girls in the school’s technology programs.

Last year, as a junior, she was one of only two girls in the program, which involved about 30 students.

“The reason I didn’t get involved in technology in my freshman and sophomore years was because I was too shy,” she said. “I was wondering if other girls had the same problem.”

Across the country, men far outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math professions and fields of study.

In 2012, there were about six men for every woman working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering and more than twice as many men than women pursuing degrees in computers, math and statistics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Additionally, about 86 percent of engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals were men.

Elizabeth Chabe, 29, is the founder of High Touch Group, a Bangor-based company that helps startups get off the ground by assisting with tasks such as finding funding and setting up websites.

This summer, Chabe launched High Touch Courses, a different summer technology camp where students from as far away as Colorado and Washington have come to learn about video game development, graphic design, programming and other skills.

She said she is hoping to create the next generation of tech entrepreneurs, but she’s worried about the lack of young women getting into the field.

“If programming is going to be the next literacy, it’s incredibly important that an entire half of our population isn’t rendered illiterate,” she said.

Bethany Waanders, 19, who graduated from John Bapst in 2013 and is back this summer to help with Noble’s summer camp, said girls aren’t getting involved in their schools’ technology programs because they see few female role models already participating.

When she first got to John Bapst, Waanders said she did not join the robotics club because she did not want to cast herself with all the boys.

It wasn’t until her sophomore year, when she noticed another girl in the club, that she thought, “It’s doable. I won’t be alone.”

Waanders went on to become captain of the team her junior and senior years and is now studying mechanical engineering at Calvin College in Michigan.

Andrea Beaulieu, 34, another Bangor-based woman embarking on a career in tech, agreed that women are more likely to join the field when they see other women participating.

Beaulieu has started a nonprofit called Cube, which will deliver small, inexpensive computers to rural schools in the Bahamas next year. The students will learn how to set up and use the computers.

When Beaulieu first attended Maine Hacker Club meetings to brainstorm her idea, she was the only woman. The club seeks to establish a cross-generational technical community.

But when she started putting out feelers online for help, other women reached out, she said.

Chabe said she is thrilled by Noble’s camp and will be a guest speaker on Wednesday.

“That is everything,” she said. It’s “youth entrepreneurship…and it’s trying to get more girls interested in being part of tech classes. It’s female led and it’s not top down.”