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Education

Getting Girls Excited About STEM

Six programs are engaging girls in science and technology as never before.

Photo Credit: Rob Marmion via Shutterstock.com

For decades, science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM) have suffered low numbers of women. Women hold more than 50% of jobs in the U.S. workforce, but fewer than 25% of those are STEM jobs.

Thanks in part to the Internet age and the ubiquity of handheld technology, slow but steady shifts in those numbers are beginning to be seen. In school, girls are taking more math and science courses than ever before and more women are making their way into STEM jobs out of necessity. There’s some solid motivation for girls to pursue these fields: Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than women in non-STEM fields, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. And if current trends continue, greater numbers of jobs are going to require STEM knowledge in the future.

Nevertheless, significant gender gaps in these fields remain, particularly in physics, computer science and engineering, and minority and low-income girls continue to be especially underrepresented, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. To fill these gaps and encourage girls to explore STEM subjects from the earliest stages of their academic careers, a growing number of organizations are working to instill a sense of enthusiasm and mastery for girls in subjects that have long been erroneously considered the realm of boys. Below are 6 organizations providing top-notch STEM opportunities for girls of all ages — whether they’re already interested in science, or just need a little push to open that door. They represent just a small sample of the many programs now in development and in action that aim to change the gender landscape in STEM fields.

1. Techbridge Girls

Techbridge Girls is an award-winning national nonprofit “engineering a revolution for girls to change the world through science, technology, engineering and math.”  They offer after-school programs for girls in grades 4-12 at under-resourced public schools, as well as unique professional development training and resources for educators and youth-serving groups. Techbridge has directly served more than 6,000 girls since 2000, and last year alone, trained more than 17,000 adults through national partnerships with groups like Girl Scouts, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs and Society of Women Engineers. 

Techbridge's model includes hands-on science projects, field trips to STEM employers, role models, family engagement, and trainings for teachers, school districts and partners. A three-year longitudinal study and annual third-party evaluations show that Techbridge programs work: participants graduate from high school at higher rates, have higher GPAs, perform better on standardized math exams, show a greater tendency to enroll in AP Calculus, and are twice as likely as the national average to choose STEM majors in college. 

Techbridge spokesperson Jenifer Jayme says, “Right now, jobs in science, technology and engineering are multiplying and shaping the future, yet armies of bright, talented girls are not entering this world because they lack opportunities and role models. A huge, capable contingent of the American workforce is untapped. We must forge bridges for girls to travel from under-resourced communities to STEM careers. It is not only a matter of social justice, but a matter of our nation’s economic prosperity and wellbeing.”

2. Girls Who Code

Discouraged by the statistic that only 18% of computer science graduates today are women (compared to 37% back in 1984), Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code to teach girls computer science skills that will make them competitive in the workforce. Saujani is former Deputy Public Advocate of New York City, and in 2010, became the first South Asian woman to run for Congress. The organization’s mission is to close the gender gap in technology. They do this by inspiring middle and high school aged girls to pursue computer science in part by exposing them to real-life and onscreen role models. The program engages female engineers, developers, executives, and entrepreneurs to teach and motivate the next generation.

In addition to its national Girls Who Code club program, the organization offers rising high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to participate in a seven-week, intensive computer science summer immersion program that embeds classrooms in technology companies and universities. Girls learn everything from robotics to mobile development to HTML and CSS while gaining exposure to the tech industry and receiving valuable mentorship from women working in technology.

3. GeekGirlCon

GeekGirlCon is an annual conference in Seattle that “celebrates and honors the legacy of women contributing to science and technology; comics, arts, and literature; and game play and game design.” It’s entirely non-profit and 100% volunteer run. In their parlance, geek is a positive term, suggesting one with knowledge and passion. As PR manager Danielle Gahl notes, “there’s no wrong way to be a geek.”

The first Con formed as a seed of inspiration in 2010 when its 30 founding members met at the annual ComicCon held in San Diego. Their next Con takes place next October 9-10, 2016.

One of the more exciting features of the Con, according to Gahl, is the opportunity it provides for girls to take part in live, hands-on science. “In STEM fields, people often talk about science but don’t get to do it. As soon as a young girl does science she can become more passionate about it. You realize it’s tactile, it’s exciting,” she says.

Their mission includes five key values:

1. All geeks are welcome.
2. Kill the cattiness and create a community.
3. Geek girls rock! (Female scientists and geeks are the whole point of the Con.)
4. Dedicated to the cause. (All those who work with the Con commit time and energy.)
5. We are the world. (Diversity is a key component.)

“We’re celebrating STEM,” Gahl says. “It’s fun, accessible. The visibility is such a huge part of it. Just by existing as a group that is celebrating female scientists and female contributions, we’re changing the culture.”

4. Qcamp for Girls

Qcamp is an annual summer camp for middle-school girls to learn app development, computer science and robotics. The two-week program is targeted at keeping young women engaged in STEM fields, and does so by making a long-term investment in its participants: girls are invited back to camp year after year, and the program aims to mentor them through their educational experience up through college, “where, if Qcamp is successful, they select a STEM degree.”

Held at the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab in San Diego, California, Qcamp provides hands-on engineering experiences that empower girls by engaging them in activities such as:

  • Learning the fundamental building blocks of computer vision
  • Developing mobile applications using MITs App Inventor
  • Programming Arduinos (an open-source prototyping platform) to control their robotic hat creations

Qcampers engage in team engineering projects that include elements of problem-solving, group communication, rapid prototyping, documentation, and presentation. The program recruits girls from the San Diego Unified School District.

5. Project Mc2

Project Mc2 is a new television program airing on Netflix that aims to inspire girls to become STEM-focused through the experiments and problem-solving of its characters — four science-focused tween girls. ProjectMc2 has also launched a line of experiment kits geared to helping girls experiment with STEM-based learning while having fun.

6. Zaniac

This after-school learning enrichment center with a national footprint offers programs such as digital fashion design, app creation, 3D printing, robotics, an architectural planning course, and specific programs Just for Girls. With a focus on peer-based learning, Zaniac instructors are typically honors high school seniors or college students. Zaniac instructors follow a prescribed Zaniac curriculum on how to motivate kids and teach each concept for each class, and are supported with online teaching manuals, videos, and supplemental materials.
 
When examining gender balance earlier this year at all of its campuses, Zaniac found approximately 70 percent of all students were boys, which further reinforced their need to encourage girls to get more involved and at an earlier age.
 
"Exposure as early as Kindergarten to the STEM fields is increasingly necessary for girls to help defeat the stereotypes that girls don't belong in STEM,” says Sidharth Oberoi, president and co-founder of Zaniac. “Zaniac actively encourages girls to explore these fields and understands that anyone can have a STEM career regardless of gender." 
 

Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of seven books. She has written for AlterNet, GOOD, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, Salon, the Washington Post and other publications. www.jordanrosenfeld.net

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