Mikayla Stokes knows a thing or two about the I nternet of Things, considering her pollution sensor snagged the top female prize i n the ASB Bright Sparks Challenge. But the 15-year- old says there’s still a stigma attached to girls getting i nto tech that i s holding young women back. Mikayla Stokes was inspired to create a pollution sensor when she was sitting outside a café and noticed that every time a truck or bus drove past, the exhaust would pollute the air.
“I decided I wanted to investigate this problem and see if there was anything I could do to fix it.”
Stokes, who is now a Year 11 student at Auckland’s Western Springs College, brought her idea to life for the ASB Bright Sparks Challenge for young science and technology enthusiasts, and went on to win the top female award in November.
Her invention was an “internet of things” particulate pollution sensor she had designed, adapted, programmed, and soldered herself. The device sends live data to an online server called Cloudly and tracks particular trends and patterns in pollution around Auckland.
It took more than six monthmonths to get the coding right so that the sensors (placed by the roadside in friends’frien gardens) would send the pollutpollution readings to her laptop reliably, and Stokes spent large chunks of her school holidays working at the Photon Factory unit at Auckland University with her mentor Andy Wang to get her product working.
Stokes' view of technology and science has now done a complete U-turn, as she is now an aspiring mechatronics (mechanical, electronics and software) engineer.
But if she hadn’t been forced to go to a VEX Robotics Competition by her Dad when she was 12, she may have never wound up tinkering in tech.
Attending the event was punishment for some long-since-forgotten demeanour at home, and she initially was embarrassed – after all, robotics and lasers were for nerds (like her Dad and her brother). In her mind, it definitely wasn’t an event for girls.
Stokes was surprised to find that although there were more males than females at the competition, about 25 percent of the people in the room were girls. More importantly, she found she was enjoying watching the robots compete.
The next time there was a VEX “scrimmage”, Stokes went along voluntarily, with a robot she and her brother built. Soon she began helping out with other tech organisations, including children’s workshops OMG Tech, innovation not-for-profit PDMANZ and Start-Up Weekend. She also joined a women’s tech networking group She#.
But Stokes says that in the three years since she was introduced to the world of tech, the stigma surrounding women in technology is still there.
“It’s hard getting my friends to take an interest in tech-related stuff because it’s intimidating. It’s like getting into a brand-new sport. Imagine there’s an allboys team and you are the only girl – it’s tough,” she says.
Girls at the tech events she takes part in are often from all-girls schools, she says, and her Western Springs College friends, while supportive and accepting, aren’t putting their hand up to take part.
Stokes’ experience is backed up by statistics from around the world. IT giant Google’s diversity stats released in July showed only 19 percent of the company's technical roles are held by women - a miserable one percent increase on 2015. At Facebook, the figure is 17 percent.
In New Zealand, the July 2016 Absolute IT Remuneration Report shows women make up only 21 percent of the tech workforce - the same as last year, and up only two percent on 2013.
Scientists like Michelle Dickinson are tr ying to lift the profile of technology, but change is slow.
“Michelle has become a huge role model for my little cousin, who’s eight. And Michelle has encouraged me to join She# and help at events like OMG Tech,” Stokes says.
Still, Stokes says it would be great if some of her mates wanted to come along as well.
“My friends think it’s cool that I’m doing well, but tech still intimidates them. And people think you have to be really good at maths and science. But I wasn’t that good at either when I started.”
She says getting involved in technology hasn’t just given her a career goal, it’s been great for her confidence too. And she’s met a whole load of interesting people.
“When I was younger I suffered from anxiety and was scared of tr ying new things. Now when I join a new group or meet someone high up in a tech company I’m saying, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”