Taking a shot with STEM

Three-time WNBA champions Phoenix Mercury are working to close the gender gap in STEM at a camp that encourages girls to grow their passions and skills in both basketball and tech.

Giggles and the crinkling sounds of snack bags fill the room as a group of girls begin to flow into a large room at the Footprint Center, home of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. They’re about to begin a workshop session, coding their own arcade-style basketball game using Microsoft Make:Code. It’s the last day of a camp run by the Mercury in partnership with Microsoft, and the sessions have given this lively cohort the opportunity to build relationships and community, while sharpening both their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), coding, and basketball skills.

This action-packed coding session ended with a visit from WNBA powerhouse Sophie Cunningham, who saw the girls’ games in action. After sharing her advice on life and sports—that is, to work hard and be themselves—she joined them for some on-court drills. Her hope was to help the girls see themselves as well-rounded individuals who are capable of anything.

STEM and computer science (CS) play a critical role in shaping the world and in solving some of its biggest challenges. But despite the high priority placed on these subjects in school, only a fraction of girls and women are likely to pursue them as careers. By the time they’re in college, 58 percent of female students believe that jobs requiring programming and coding are “not for them.” If half the population is less than fully represented in STEM and CS fields, the world inevitably misses out on the diverse perspectives needed to drive innovation.

As Dr. Stephanie Lovingood—Director of Activation for the Mercury’s Global Partnerships—explains: “For innovation and long-term, sustainable economic growth, young girls with an interest in STEM must be empowered and inspired to pursue professions in technology. And as I’ve learned from my own experiences, diverse teams also perform better.”

That’s why Microsoft and Pheonix Mercury are committed to empowering the next generation of women to take on tech with clinics offering girls in the Phoenix community a unique perspective on STEM skills through the lens of their favorite sport. With topics like dunking on the moon, making the perfect shot with a robot, designing the perfect shoe, and activities like binary coding and building a catapult, the activities are designed to connect STEM to basketball and show participants that STEM exists everywhere in sports. To bring the concept to life, they invited local speakers and partners like the Arizona Science Center who offered hands-on demonstrations and introductions to women working in STEM.

Beyond the clinics, the hope is that girls will learn to understand science’s broad impact and see how STEM skills are vital to their lives—from their favorite sport to the world around them—whether they become basketball players, leaders, scientists, or anything else that they dream.