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PORTAGE — She Can Tech began last year with a simple mission — increase the representation of young women in STEM.

Sanja Kirova — a Portage High School graduate now studying at Columbia University in New York City — founded the group with co-leaders Kassandra Degara, Mireina Keith and Kelly Schaffer after the Portage teens realized they were the only women represented on their Portage Community Robotics team and wanted to do something to change that.

The group now works with girls in the fourth through ninth grade through the Boys & Girls Club's Portage Club to teach programming, video game design, app making and more in three-day STEM workshops.

The conferences are free to Boys & Girls Club members, and the group works to offer scholarships to hopeful members on a case-by-case basis.

"I was a club kid — I was a part of Boys & Girls Club from the third grade," Kirova said. "Once I saw I could be a mentor to those students at the Boys & Girls Club, I was inspired to create something to teach others."

The group is attracting support from big backers. She Can Tech was recently named among 30 finalists for T-Mobile's Changemaker Challenge, a national competition seeking the best ideas for change among teens and young adults in the technology, environment and education arenas.

As one of the Changemaker Challenge's Top 30, the She Can Tech team will receive $2,000 in seed funding and a trip for two She Can Tech leaders to receive three days of mentorship in late February from social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka at T-Mobile's Bellevue, Washington, headquarters. More than 400 teams entered the national competition.

It's one of just several efforts Kirova and her team have employed to fund their vision, drawing about a dozen girls to each event.

She Can Tech was launched with support from the National Center for Women & Information Technology's Aspirations in Computing program, and has received multiple grants from the organizations AspireIT programming fundamentals program.

Through continued partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club, the group has put on training sessions, webinars and mentor activities in small group settings of usually 10 to 15 girls.

The group built their own curriculum based on simplified lessons from the high schoolers' pre-engineering and Project Lead The Way courses. But, She Can Tech educates beyond textbook curriculum, emphasizing core leadership traits and teaching presentation skills, confidence and social influence.

Each project requires research into a field of interest, like the health industry or environmental science, to apply STEM concepts to real world problems.

"All of their solutions and all of their projects are focused on social issues," Kirova said. "Their solutions are not just to contribute to this massive text, but actually can have a little impact."

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As three of its own founders graduated high school and left home to pursue higher education, She Can Tech elevated a team of "New Gen" leaders — including Portage High School sophomores Jade Kokinda, Sara Mitchell and Makayla Zettler — to continue educating young women in Northwest Indiana.

Kirova said She Can Tech hopes to put T-Mobile seed money toward purchasing additional coding tools and developing workshop ideas so repeat attendees can take away a different experience from each session with She Can Tech.

Long-term, the co-founder said she would like to expand the mission of She Can Tech to serve not just young women in STEM, but to more broadly reach youth who may have trouble accessing STEM education.

The She Can Tech team will have its own local Changemaker Party on Feb. 20 to celebrate area changemakers through projects and storytelling, Kirova said.

"We had mentors at the Boys & Girls Club who helped us establish such a good model for the program," Kirova said. "We had high school teachers who have jumped out and help lead. It's always a community effort."

To learn more about She Can Tech and their upcoming events, visit the group's website at shecantech.org.

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.