April 20, 2017
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This college student wrote a children’s book to inspire girls to pursue STEM

19-year-old Sasha Ariel Alston hopes her new book will inspire young girls of color to fall in love with math and science

College student Sasha Ariel Alston is the author of a new children's book, "Sasha Savvy Loves to Code." Photo courtesy of Alston, Illustration by Vanessa Brantley Newton

The tech industry has a gender diversity problem. A 19-year-old from Washington D.C. is pushing back with a new book. Sasha Ariel Alston began writing “Sasha Savvy Loves to Code,” a semi-autobiographical story about a 10 year-old African American girl and her friends attending an all-girls coding camp. Her goal was to inspire young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math, while teaching some programming basics as well.

When Alston completed the book as a sophomore at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business, she brought it to Kickstarter in an effort to raise $5,000 for “final production, printing, and distribution costs.” There, the book found a wildly receptive audience: “Sasha Savvy Loves to Code” reached its $5,000 goal in four days, and raised $17,602 by the end of the campaign. Alston is still talking with publishers and there is no release date just yet.

Even though the book garnered overwhelming support online, while writing, Alston kept it a secret from her friends. Alston considers herself a nerd, but the stigma surrounding coding makes her uncomfortable. “My friends knew that I was interested in coding and they would call me a nerd. They would say a lot of mean stuff,” she said. “My friends didn’t know about the book until I announced it because I didn’t want them to know or say anything about it.”

Part of the problem is a self-sustaining cycle. According to portrayals in popular media, Alston said, “you have to be a white male or boy, and have glasses.” These stereotypes, in turn, can drive girls away from STEM, making the tech industry even more homogenous.

Alston hopes to remedy this trend, at least in part, with her new book.

Alston first became interested in coding in the 11th grade, with an internship at Microsoft. The experience exposed her to a wider range of applications of coding that weren’t being taught in the classroom. It also exposed her to the realities of diversity and representation in tech.

“With all of my internships, I noticed that I was either the only girl or only African American,” Alston said. “My school was mostly African American so I didn’t really know how to interact with anybody else. … Going into the spaces at the beginning felt very challenging and difficult to me.”

Alston was inspired to write the book by an important woman in her life—her mom, or as she calls her on Kickstarter, her “MOManager.”

During a radio interview during her senior year of high school, Alston was asked to explain coding. Her mother Tracy Chiles McGhee, an author herself, thought Alston’s answer was particularly clear, and urged her daughter to write a children’s book. Since then, McGhee has acted as Sasha’s project manager: the two brainstorm together, and despite a nine-to-five job, McGhee helped organize the book-writing process, managing spreadsheets which tracked everything from agents to deadlines.

Other women were also instrumental to the process. A librarian, a school teacher, and two other writers—all mothers—gave their feedback and helped edit the book. “They were able to say ‘my child would probably do this, or my student would probably do that’,” Alston said. Feedback from parents was especially useful, given that Alston learned programming as a teenager and wasn’t sure which ideas younger readers might have trouble with.

The tech industry can be isolating, Alston said, “Even with me in [tech], I still don’t feel necessarily comfortable, because I don’t really think I have anybody that I can truly relate to.” In this sense, Alston and her book are models for the next generation of girls, showing that they can be interested in tech without stigma, that they too can love to code.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.
  • Deashawn

    This was an interesting read. As a fellow coder, I respect those who try to get more of the youth into coding. I hope more women and people of color read this article and consider becoming coders as well.

    • Margaret Myers

      Thank you for your feedback! We thought Sasha was pretty interesting too:) — The Renewal Project editor Margaret Myers

  • MPadina

    How can one find out when the book is released so we can order it?