STEM Alliance Offers Code for Success

High school junior Ruby Rios gains confidence and perspective through local initiative


September 23, 2016

When Ruby Rios was a high school freshman, she opened the door to her second college-level computer coding class and the instructor looked up and said, “I think you’re in the wrong classroom.”

“I looked back at him and said, ‘Is this C++?’ He said it was and I said, ‘Then I’m in the right place.’  But I was this scared little girl in a room full of men.  It made me think I couldn’t do it,” she remembers.  “When you’re not like everyone else in the room, it makes you want to give up.”

But Ruby did not give up.  With the encouragement of her family and the Kansas City STEM Alliance, Ruby found her voice in coding. The STEM Alliance is a K-12 program that works to increase the supply of professionals in science, technology, engineering and math. More than 75 area companies partner with the Alliance, which serves more than 45,000 students in 33 school districts in the metropolitan area.

Now a high school junior, Ruby participated in her first programming camp at STEM in 2013. “My parents supported me, but I thought you had to have a calling to do something. I didn’t think I could make a difference.  STEM taught me that my voice matters.”

While working with STEM, Ruby became aware of the Girls Who Code clubs.  She mentioned it to Alliance Executive Director Martha McCabe, who suggested she explore starting an urban chapter in Kansas City. Now there are four in the Kansas City area.

Last spring, Bishop McCann, a Kansas City-based meeting, event and incentive travel agency, held their second CHAT series event. It featured Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani woman who is an advocate for girls’ education. The proceeds of the event supported the KC STEM Alliance.  More than 20 girls from the program attended the event. Ruby was one of three who were selected to meet Malala and participate in a small round table discussion. 

“It was the best experience of my life,” she says. “Her words had so much power.  Malala’s doing something that I want to do.  I want to help other people. I’ve been so lucky. There have been so many people who have been willing to listen.  Martha and [Executive Vice President] Julie Wilson at Cerner.  People who have been through so much and worked to get their voices out.”

 While her C++ class was not easy, she stuck with it.

 “I got an A!  I was as proud of that A as anything I’d done in my life! You don’t have to be a genius to code, but having the people at the KC STEM Alliance encouraging me was important.”  Ruby could see that she had a place in that room. “Every organization needs girls.  We think differently.  Our perspective makes it better.”

 Though the idea of creating a world-changing program excites her, Ruby has plans beyond coding.  She’d like to start a group chat forum for girls in tech that would enable other girls to start their own communities.  She’s thinking about starting a blog so other girls can see they are not alone in their interest in tech.  

 “The question in coding is ‘what if…?’” says Ruby. “You see a possibility and you figure out how to write the code to solve it.  If you have a computer, you can change the world.”

 The KC STEM Alliance is housed in the UMKC KC Engineering Zone, as a result of corporate giving to the UMKC Foundation and a significant grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation beginning in 2011.