EMU's Digital Divas program expands into Detroit with esports teams for high school girls

Members of the two esports teams will have the opportunity to learn more about STEM careers, learn soft skills, and gain competitive advantage in male-dominated fields.
This story was first published in Model D's sister publication, Concentrate
The Digital Divas program at Eastern Michigan University’s GameAbove College of Engineering and Technology recently expanded its reach by forming two competitive video gaming teams for Detroit high school girls.

Members of the two esports teams will have the opportunity to learn more about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and STEM careers; learn soft skills; and gain competitive advantage in male-dominated fields. Support for the teams comes from the education nonprofit CODE 313 and the PNC Foundation

EMU freshman Mia Cusenza mentored and coached the girls over the last few months. She decided to get involved, she says, because she wishes she'd had similar support when she was the girls' age.
Digital Divas participants.
"It's a really great way to meet other women who have the same interests as you, and it dives you right into the competition of playing video games," Cusenza says. 

She notes that women in video gaming are often less competitive and more cooperative than male players.

"It's nice when there's a group like Digital Divas for girls in high school to meet and support each other," Cusenza says. "They can also help each other be more competitive and bring each other up. I wish I'd had something like that. In high school, it was just me and a ton of guys [playing video games]."

Digital Divas program evolves

The Digital Divas program was established in 2010 to encourage girls to explore STEM. For many years, the program offered biannual day-long conferences – one for high school girls, one for middle schoolers – with keynote speakers and breakout sessions.

Bia Hamed, EMU’s director of K-12 STEM outreach and Digital Divas program director, says her job is to engage with kids and "make STEM fun and attractive, something they want to explore." The Digital Divas (and Digital Dudes programs for boys) brought more than 1,000 children to EMU's campus for hands-on science activities.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to serve children in new ways, such as giving away about 500 STEM kits in collaboration with the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) in summer of 2021. Hamed says the kits were given away both at the library and throughout the community as YDL offered outreach programs in various neighborhoods.
Eastern Michigan University's Digital Divas program director Bia Hamed.
"The library would go to these different housing projects, put on a program, and offer food for the community," Hamed says. "We packed up STEM kits to be given out as well for kids who came to get these food deliveries. [The kits include] fun activities they can do on their own or with the family."

Kits included a variety of STEM-based projects, including growing lettuce hydroponically and learning how to use measuring devices.

Hamed says Digital Divas also offered a video series, featuring women telling their stories about having STEM-based careers, through the program's website. Hamed says keeping kids interested in STEM through a pandemic was a challenge, and that's where the focus on esports came in.

"Esports was one of the easiest programs to implement, because the kids don't even have to leave their homes to participate," Hamed says. 

Esports for girls in Detroit

The main challenge in starting the two all-girl esports teams was finding funding. EMU, in compliance with Title IX gender discrimination law, can't fund programs directed only at one gender, Hamed says. She had to seek outside funding to support a program for girls in esports, and gained some funding from the PNC Foundation to buy each participant a gaming computer, headset, and mouse. Esports league fees were waived to remove cost barriers, as well.

Digital Divas partnered with CODE 313 to find girls for the two esports teams because the technology nonprofit was "already well-established in Detroit," Hamed says. 

The girls practice "Overwatch" weekly and are learning how to be better video gamers, but they are also learning soft skills and are being introduced to female role models as guest speakers each month.

"For instance, the last speaker was an EMU student who is a computer science major who is getting ready to graduate. She talked to the girls about her experience, internships, and offers she's already received," Hamed says. "She's on the fast track to being so successful, and that's why I work so hard to get these girls to realize what these STEM majors are and to embrace them." 

EMU senior and track and field athlete Morgan Iverson spoke with the girls in the program and got to see what they were working on. She says her own introduction to computer science started in middle school, where she had a chance to try out block-style coding. A high school coach suggested she take AP computer science, and Iverson calls that "such a blessing."
Digital Divas participants.
"I wasn't totally sure what I wanted to major in in college, and I was blessed to come out of that class knowing I really enjoyed coding," she says. 

She notes that a variety of STEM majors, from medicine to math, require some coding and that coding is a good skill to list on a resume.

Hamed notes that the girls also learn how to function in a field that is currently male-dominated and sometimes misogynistic toward women gamers.

Cusenza says that sometimes male gamers "like to upset girls."

"They'll say things like 'You don't know what you're talking about,' or 'Why don't you shut up already?' They like to be mean to girls," Cusenza says. 
Eastern Michigan University's Digital Divas program director Bia Hamed.
She says there's strength in numbers, though. It's easier to call bad behavior out and stop it if you're playing with a friend or on a team.

"Sometimes girls are not treated well, and these girls, who are 14 to 17, are learning to advocate for themselves as women," Hamed says. "It's unfortunate they have to be treated like that, but they're learning this skill set so early in life. There'll be no stopping them."

Hamed says that beyond gaining self-advocacy skills, the girls gain familiarity and competence with technology through esports.

"I came from a generation where we were told video games were sinful and not good for you, but that's a lie," Hamed says. "They teach critical thinking, eye-hand coordination. We're finding now that kids that grew up with video games are really advanced technologically."

Digital Divas will return to in-person programming this November. More information about the program is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at [email protected].

All photos by Doug Coombe.