Interview with the “Fabulous Five,” a Team of High School Girl Programmers

May 28, 2013

1:00 pm

Left to right: Jasmine Hall, Megan Prass, Gelsey Jian, Maryam Ermin Sinanovic, and Heritage Weems.

Last week I interviewed the “Fabulous Five,” an all-female team of high school juniors who were one of ten winners of the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. I ended the interview by asking if there was anything else they wanted to mention.

“The whole girl thing,” one said. “Oh yeah,” said another. “Mmmhmm,” someone murmured.

Here’s what they had to say about “the whole girl thing”:

Jasmine: People keep making a big deal about us being a female team, although I don’t understand why that’s such a big deal.

Heritage: It kind of makes sense because if you think about it, we were one of the very few all-girls teams that actually joined the competition. All girls is a little different, because even if there’s only one guy, it’s still like, “Oh, well, the girls are going to be riding on the guys…”

Jasmine: It’s not like we don’t have the potential to do great things; it’s just, when we do something great, it’s oddly surprising [to people].

Heritage: No, but think about it: our generation thinks like that, but everybody else who’s still alive and old – basically, I’m going to blame it on the old people.

Jasmine: For the younger people who are hopefully going to follow in our footsteps, don’t give up. Even if people say, “You are a girl, don’t do this coding stuff. Ew.” It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s easy. Even if there are so, so many negative people, keep calm and carry on.

Maryam: If you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, honestly, just go for it. The only thing that’s stopping you is you, and of course it’s going to be tough. If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it. So honestly, just go out there and pursue it.

So that’s what they did. And they won, receiving $10,000 for their school (South River High School in Maryland), a Samsung Galaxy Note each, and mentorship from the MIT Media Lab to turn their prototype into a full-fledged Android app called Study Buddy. The app is a planner where students can keep track of tests and deadlines, make notes, study flashcards, and play games.

The young women are all part of their school’s STEM magnet program. They applied before freshman year, and the strongest candidates were put into a lottery to pick 100 incoming freshman. After one year of introductory classes, they pick one of five specialties: engineering, computer science, earth and space, materials and nanotech, or green technologies.

They all chose STEM for different reasons (as you can read below), but one common thread is their parents: Jasmine says both her parents work with computers, and Heritage’s parents are “very technical.” Gelsey’s dad is a physicist, and Megan’s dad is a patent attorney (who’s helping them file a patent for their app).

Below, I chatted with the young women about programming, “haters,” and how they got into STEM.

Tech Cocktail: What motivated you to build this app? 

Jasmine: There was no grade or credit at stake. I did this because I wanted to do this. Because all these other competitions [available] focused on engineering or environment; they just kind of ignored technology. So when a technology competition with awesome prizes and apps and stuff is presented before us, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to do this.”

Heritage: It’s also really fun to be able to do a project without getting any grades for it and to be able to do whatever you want with it because it’s your project. It’s not like you have to please somebody else with it at school–

Jasmine: Well, a lot of people were not very supportive. There are a lot of “haters” and people who are like, “Why are you doing this competition? You know you don’t have to. You’re just wasting your time. You’re not going to win. Blah, blah, blah, negative stuff.”

Megan: Even if we didn’t win, we still wanted to do this because creating something like an app is amazing. The fact that we created something is awesome.

Maryam: I think most of the negativity, from what I’ve experienced, would come from the boys, actually. They would be like, “Why are you doing this? You’re girls. You’re not supposed to be doing this.” But look where we are now: we’re just a team of five girls and we’re making this app and that’s amazing.

Tech Cocktail: Why did you apply to the STEM program originally? 

Maryam: It’s funny. To be honest, in the beginning, I was more interested in the arts, writing, language arts-type thing. And when I got into STEM and I was accepted, I figured why not try and be immersed in something new? And right now, after three years in STEM, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m in STEM because I don’t think I would have chosen to be in the science, technology, engineering pathway. I love it. It’s weird how my perspective changed from then to now, and I’m really proud that my dad pushed me to be in STEM.

Megan: I’ve always wanted to be a radiologist, and I knew that STEM could help aid me in becoming one and finding out if I truly want to be a doctor and finding my passion. I loved math and science, and I knew that if I got in it would be helpful. I’m glad that I applied.

Gelsey: I’ve always been interested in math and science. My dad’s a physicist, and he was really, really good at math and science in Taiwan, and he sort of passed that down to me. Math and science have always been my best subjects in school, and I’ve always been on the edge of whether I wanted to be a pediatrician or a biomedical engineer. In middle school, I actually signed up to take a three-week biotechnology course at Johns Hopkins, and that fueled it for me.

Heritage: For me, it was a matter of wanting to be able to do more. I was actually kind of bored in middle school, and I wanted to try something new, because high school was just going to be the same as middle school but more people. So I wanted to try something different and do some more STEM-type learning rather than the same “mush” we were doing in middle school.

Jasmine: Unlike my friends who have some idea of what they want to do or some noble goal, why I wanted to enter STEM was I knew I didn’t want to live in a box when I grew up, and I liked video editing, and I was pretty sure that liberal arts wasn’t going to be that helpful to me to succeed in those goals. So I just entered the STEM thing on a whim and I got in, so I just stayed in. And since being exposed to more technology stuff, I’m now really into programming games and photography and a bunch of other technology-coding-type stuff. So I’m probably going to stick with it for a career so I don’t end up in a box.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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