Innovation: Helping girls develop STEM skills through digital mapping technology
Home: Philadelphia and Baltimore
Occupation: Founder of a digital mapping company
Hobbies: Soccer, scuba diving, traveling
Digital cartography opens up STEM disciplines for girls
By Michael Cross-Barnet
Photography by Megan Kelly
Maps can help in navigating an unfamiliar city or a new hiking trail. But to Maggie Cawley, that only scratches the surface of their potential. “Smart maps” using geographic information systems are increasingly useful for tasks ranging from predicting the spread of a cholera epidemic to projecting the effect of rising sea levels on the East Coast. Here in Baltimore, Cawley realized that the same technology she harnesses to do things like help the Friends of Leakin Park track invasive species can give teenage girls a push into the worlds of science and technology – while helping them to know their hometown a little better.
“I want to take that element away, that feeling of being scared to ask a question, or feeling like you’re not supposed to be good at science because you’re a girl.”
For the past two summers, Cawley worked with teens in the Parks and People Foundation’s BRANCHES program, planting and pruning trees and also creating maps. They plotted the locations of vacant houses on Baltimore’s west side, shops on The Avenue in Hampden and everything from the placement of trash cans to the sights, sounds and even smells along Baltimore’s segment of the National Park Service’s Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The experience inspired Cawley to create MapGirlz, an initiative of her consulting company, Boomerang Geospatial.
Cawley loves the way mapping can introduce young people to the world of science and technology in a way that’s fun and unintimidating – which she says is especially important for girls, who are less likely to be comfortable with digital technology. “It’s approachable,” she says. “It kind of opens the door for other learning about computer science and coding.” It’s also a discipline that dovetails neatly with almost any subject a young person might be interested in, ranging from music to math to sports.
Cawley uses freely available, open source software and takes advantage of the explosion of databases on the Internet. Baltimore City, for example, has a trove of information on its website to inspire would-be digital cartographers, cataloging everything from crime patterns to the locations of restaurants or murals throughout the city.
At a recent industry conference Cawley went to, only 13 percent of those in attendance were women. Cawley hopes her students will have a different experience, should they choose to enter the field. And she believes strongly that for adolescent girls, learning in a single-sex environment helps.
“I want to take that element away, that feeling of being scared to ask a question, or feeling like you’re not supposed to be good at science because you’re a girl,” she says.