Karen Thurm Safran: STEM in Palo Alto High School

Jul 18, 2015 by

Alexa Cafe-1

An Interview with Karen Thurm Safran: STEM in Palo Alto High School

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Karen, first of all, can you tell us about yourself – your education and experience?

I have over twenty years of marketing, business, and sales development leadership experience, with an emphasis in the K-12 education STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) industry. This includes working for Apple, Corvus, and now iD Tech. I’m a Mount Holyoke College alumna with an MBA from Santa Clara University. Since education is important to me, I’m thrilled to help influence thousands of students by engaging them in STEM education. Through our hands-on summer tech programs, they see firsthand how an interest can turn into a college degree and career. With over one million STEM jobs which are supposed to be unfilled by the year 2020, it’s important to inspire today’s youth. It’s also important to get girls excited about STEM fields by breaking down their negative stereotypes of what it means to be in the STEM industry. This is especially important to me having attended an all-women’s college (Mount Holyoke College).

2) Now, we all seem to know that there is a shortage of workers in STEM—how do you account for this?

Unfortunately, girls have a negative perception of what it is like to work in the STEM field, and this has been reinforced for decades. Luckily it’s now being addressed head on. There are also many studies which have uncovered what excite girls and how to break these stereotypes. This can change because in the 70s there weren’t many women in health and biological sciences; however, with an emphasis in these areas, now most people in these professions are women. I believe that a similar shift can happen in STEM fields.

3) What is this Alexa Café and what are you trying to accomplish?

While half our global population is female, women are still underrepresented in many STEM fields—especially in computer science. As a company founded by two women, engaging girls in technology has always been a concern for iD Tech, so in 2014 we used research from Google and worked with top tech executives to develop an all-girls camp that’s totally unique.

Alexa Café isn’t just a technology camp for girls; we completely reimagined the tech camp experience to create a unique environment that show girls what’s possible with technology. We traded traditional labs for a cozy and collaborative café vibe, complete with beanbags and baguettes. At the Café, technology is fun and fresh. Courses emphasize brand identity, leadership, philanthropy, and entrepreneurship so that girls can learn how technology can be used to make a difference in our world.

4) How are the participants chose and what kinds of things do they do during this Summer Camp?

Girls from all over the world attend Alexa Café, which is now held in seven states nationwide and nine locations. There isn’t an application process so we make it easy for girls to participate. At Alexa Café, girls collaborate around café tables and learn to code apps, design mobile games for iPhone and Android, produce movies, build wearable electronics with lights and sensors, design websites, and more. Each course emphasizes philanthropy and leadership, so girls can learn how to create a 1-for-1 movement. With an emphasis on entrepreneurship, leadership, brand identity, and philanthropy, girls build tech skills in a unique, stylish setting alongside tech-savvy mentors. Whether designing a sleek webpage or learning to code creatively, technology shouldn’t be intimidating or uninspired. In the right environment, it’s cool.

5) Let’s talk about some of the high points–entrepreneurship- why do you focus on this aspect of STEM?

Girls want to make a difference in the world and entrepreneurship is exciting. We also show how you can work for or own a business that does social good, like TOMS shoes. The girls finish a project at the end of the week and it’s based on some social issue that is important to them.

6) Have you been doing any long term research on this program-Or do you plan to?

Yes, before we launched Alexa Café last summer we conducted our own research and also read research from Google, Harvey Mudd, and others. Consequently we designed our program on this research… and it’s effective because Alexa Café is a popular, successful program.

7) Who actually runs the program and where does the money come from?

iD Tech runs the program and Alexa Café is one of our five STEM summer programs.

8) Are there any boys involved in this program? Or is it all for girls?

We have a variety of co-ed summer programs for kids and teens ages 6-18, but Alexa Café is just for girls. Studies show that girls thrive in an all-girls setting, especially in this age group where boys can be intimidating. It also lets us apply specific teaching skills that encourage girls to excel as well as creates a more collaborative environment.

9) How supportive are the parents? What is their involvement like?

Parents are very supportive since they want their daughter to learn STEM skills and be introduced to STEM careers. Their involvement includes recommending the program to their daughter and others, as well as attending our Concept Café on Friday before taking their daughter home.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

You’re very thorough with your questions. We are excited to see so many girls immersed in STEM education. For years 12% of our students were girls with 15% last summer. This summer we’re very pleased that the number has significantly grown to 21%.

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