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Kenyan Native Leads an Effort to Introduce Low-Income Iowa Girls to High Technology

Rob Dillard
Iowa Public Radio

The drive to draw more young women into science, technology, engineering and math has been gaining momentum in recent years. There's a program in Des Moines that makes sure low-income girls are given a chance at the so-called STEM fields.

Many of the girls Nancy Mwirotsi works with are beginning at ground zero when it comes to computers.

“Most of them are pretty new in the country," she says. "We had to start with basic what is an e-mail address.”

Mwirotsi is herself an immigrant, arriving in Des Moines from Kenya in 1997. Her effort to encourage newly-located-to-the U.S. girls to get out of the house and try something unfamiliar began as a dance class.

“Girls are expected to stay home, to help out in the house, to do laundry, take care of their siblings," she says. "And I realized these girls, that’s all they did.”

The initiative has evolved into a program called Pursuit of Innovation 515, more commonly known among its participants as Pi 515. The scope of it has also grown to include low-income, at-risk students no matter their family histories.

“We’ve noticed there are a lot of kids who are really intelligent, just no one has reached out to them and said, hey, can you pursue that or look into that, and maybe even if you don’t like it, you have tried it,” Mwirotsi says.

Mwirotsi launched Pi515 in 2014. It operates with modest resources and a group of corporate volunteers as it sets out to teach middle-and-high-school girls how to build web sites, create video games and learn computer coding. The weekly class captivated the imagination of seventh-grader Haley Ceballos.

“We started doing coding and it actually was fun," she says. "I thought it was going to be boring and hard and annoying. It is. But, it’s actually pretty fun.”

Haley has become a leader in the class, the girl others turn to when lost in coding or stumped while uploading pictures. She’d like to pursue a STEM-related field. If she needs inspiration to stay involved, she can look to former Pi515 student Trixie Lagat. Trixie is at the University of Iowa now, majoring in biomedical engineering with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. She says she learned to solve problems in the program, something she says boys are encouraged to do more than girls.

“They just grow up being taught how to critically think and solve problems," she says. "And girls are more tailored toward learning about how to be a better housewife and how to take care of their family.”

A program such as Pi515 depends heavily on up-to-date technology, so to keep it operating is a challenge for Nancy Mwirotsi.

“I had every reason to give up." she says. "The first year, anytime I applied for anything, it was full of rejection, rejection, rejection, and it has surprised me in regards to how I’ve become resilient.”

Lately, she’s drawn the attention of some of the biggest names in the Des Moines-area high-tech community. Facebook donated money for laptops. One of the region’s most successful start-ups, Dwolla and its founder Ben Milne, provided cash support. The social game developer Hatchlings held a worldwide fundraiser for Pi515. Its founder, Brad Dwyer, says he saw it as an investment in the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“Even if you come from a very poor family you can learn technology and get a high paying job and move up and then your kids can be afforded some benefits you didn’t have," he says. "I think that’s the story of America.”

The story of Pi515 is still being written, says Nancy Mwirotsi.

“Our hope one day is to build our own innovation center, or get a space for an innovation center, because once we have that the kids will know they have a place to come anytime to foster creativity,” she says.

She says local companies better take heed of the Pi515 graduates. They’ll go off to college and return home, she says, filled with the skills and creativity sought by successful businesses.