“It’s definitely hard to find fellow Indigenous people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM),” says Elisabeth Holm. “Throughout most of my coding education and STEM education, I’ve been the only girl in a class of boys, and maybe one of two who are a minority.”
Sitting in her family home in San Diego, the 17-year-old is fully aware of the shortcomings of the world she’s immersed herself in. Despite living in California, where more than 630,000 people identify as either American Indian or Alaska Native according to the 2020 U.S. Census results, the state’s diversity never carried over into the world of STEM.
It is a world she’s been immersed in for over half her life, spending nine years in classes, conferences and programs—and it was this chronic lack of diversity that pushed her to form the Sisterhood of Native American Coders (SONAC) in late 2019. Her goal wasn’t to become a trailblazer for her community; she simply wanted to see more young, Native American women like herself in the STEM field she’d grown to love. Yet, in the nearly two years since it launched, SONAC has already made strides in diversifying the future of STEM.
From summer camper to STEM star
When she began planning the launch of SONAC in late 2019, the mission was simple: Correct the diversity imbalance through a free, 12-week STEM learning program aimed at 9- to 12-year-old girls. As Holm explained, it is in this three-year range specifically that you begin to see a divide in STEM interests based on gender. “We wanted to engage that specific age range to catch young women before they fall through the cracks and start losing interest in STEM.”
The foundation was built on three goals: Holm wanted to close the gender gap of women in STEM careers, provide engaging STEM education and activities for Native American girls, and form a community for girls to support each other through their academic careers, internships and occupational endeavors.
To achieve that, Holm designed the program so girls could take classes through Zoom, where material is presented through slides and live coding demonstrations. The program is broken up into three parts: mentoring, learning hour and office hour. Students are taught how to code in Python and MIT App Inventor, and instructors help with projects, as well as general life skills, which include everything from how to pursue a STEM career to how to make your voice heard outside of the classroom.
With SONAC, Holm wants to teach young Native American girls an invaluable lesson that she herself had learned as a child: STEM can be more than just a lucrative career choice—it can also be cool and exciting. “These girls really want to make a difference in the world. We’re just showing them that STEM is one way to do that.”
All it takes is a spark, which, for Holm, was ignited in the summer before sixth grade when she attended the 2015 class at Qcamp, an all-girls STEM summer camp in San Diego. Her interest had already developed at that point as she’d spent two years on her school’s robotics team, but Holm had still never fully considered pursuing computer science until then. “[The camp] really emphasized creativity, having fun and using your imagination,” she recalls. “It gave me the confidence to pursue STEM.”
Since then, Holm has built up her skills by attending STEM conferences and working internships at San Diego’s Supercomputer Center. Throughout this journey, she’s seen the need for racial and gender diversity first hand, especially as it pertains to Native Americans.
These girls really want to make a difference in the world. We’re just showing them that STEM is one way to do that.
—Elisabeth Holm, SONAC founder
According to a study by the Pew Research Center released in April 2021, only 3% of STEM workers identify as Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or identify with two or more racial groups. The problem of representation can’t be written off as a lack of interest in STEM: It is tied into a set of systemic barriers that Native American students have to overcome, including the lack of access to stable internet connections and the necessary math and science high school courses needed to pursue jobs in STEM fields.
Data compiled by the College Board in 2018 revealed that only 176 Native American students out of 70,864—or 0.00025%—took the computer science principles AP exam. Furthermore, a 2018 FCC study found that an estimated 35% of American Indians in Indian Country lacked access to broadband internet, compared to only 8% of all Americans. Even these studies measuring access come with caveats, as Native American populations are often excluded from educational research.
Overcoming pandemic challenges and the digital divide
For Holm, the lack of internet access presented a challenge as SONAC pivoted to an online-only endeavor in response to the pandemic. But through a word-of-mouth campaign that spread through tribal groups on social media, she was able to fill two sessions with over 120 girls representing 82 unique tribal affiliations across 25 states.
Thus far, the digital format hasn’t hit any major issues in regards to internet access. “Many of our SONAC girls have successfully completed the SONAC program without their own devices,” she explains. “Some use borrowed devices or go to their local library where they can use publicly accessible computers or tablets.” Holm has the girls complete an initial survey that asks whether or not they have access to a computer or alternative device, as well as stable internet access. For the girls who don’t have access, she works with them directly to develop a solution—including purchasing tablets on loan through SONAC’s funding and recording every session so students can look back on any classes they miss.
Having those role models come and talk to the girls really allowed them to latch onto something and see themselves in these women. That’s definitely one of the ways that we’ve connected SONAC and the things that we’re trying to teach to Indigenous communities and culture.
—Elisabeth Holm, SONAC founder
Another benefit of the online format? With no physical boundaries that could limit the program to her immediate area, Holm was able to reach girls, teachers and guest speakers from around the U.S. and Canada. The teachers are Native American women in STEM fields who have expressed interest in working with SONAC to give back to the community, while the guest speakers are Native American women in STEM who work at companies that include NASA and SpaceX.
Dianna Soule, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and coding veteran with 15 years of experience, first became a mentor and then a teaching assistant for the program. She became involved after seeing an ad on her tribe’s social media page looking for young girls who wanted to code. “I was just like, ‘I’m in computer science. I’m a lady. I’m Indigenous. I’m here to help however you need. How can I be helpful?'”
Through teaching, Soule found a means to bring pieces of her own Indigenous culture to the coursework. To teach a coding concept called dictionary, which assigns keys to values with stored objects, she used words from her native language.
Among all of the different elements of the SONAC curriculum, it was the guest speakers in the mentorship session that Holm was especially proud of. “Having those role models come and talk to the girls really allowed them to latch onto something and see themselves in these women,” Holm says. “That’s definitely one of the ways that we’ve connected SONAC and the things that we’re trying to teach to Indigenous communities and culture.”
The future is bright
With two sessions finished and the possibility of in-person meetings looking likely, Holm has begun to adapt SONAC to the post-pandemic landscape—and to her increasingly busy school schedule as an undergraduate computer science major at Stanford University. With no full session planned yet, she has instead introduced the SONAC Big Sister Extended Mentoring Program, a nine-month program that pairs four girls from the previous sessions with mentors who are Indigenous women in STEM. Beyond that, Holm and the rest of the SONAC team are also looking to package SONAC into a standalone program to be run by teachers or community leaders.
No matter what shape SONAC takes over the next stage of its expansion, Holm’s mission will remain the same. “We’re trying to reassure [Native American girls] that STEM and coding and robots are cool and exciting and can be really life-changing.”
Lead photo of Elisabeth Holm