Mikayla Stokes

SENSING SUC­CESS

Idealog - - CONTENT -

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?’”

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