The Nonprofit Push for Girls in Engineering
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Episode Show Notes
Hear from two nonprofit organizations trying to provide girls with more education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In Part 1 (start @00:59), we visit Girlstart, a Texas-based nonprofit that reaches thousands of girls from 4th grade up to junior high with hands-on programs. Executive Director Tamara Hudgins shares what it’s like to develop the program over the past years and into the future. In Part 2 (start @27:27), we talk to the founders of Scientific Adventures for Girls, a newer nonprofit around Oakland, California, that targets younger girls in early elementary. Courtenay Carr-Heuer and Tiffany Sprague are using their experience in the both the corporate and nonprofit sectors to start this organization from the ground up. Together these nonprofit directors give stories about why reaching girls in engineering is important and what practical strategies can help others in this same mission. Hear about after-school curricula, recruitment methods, family engagement, key data to collect, fundraising, and other pivotal aspects of their work.
Remember that the podcast will be at the SXSW Conference and Festival in March, 2017! Pius and Rachel from the podcast will be running workshops for educators and professional engineers: www.sxsw.com and www.sxswedu.com
Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0
Subscribe and find more podcast information at k12engineering.net. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, or send one-time contributions by buying us coffee. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
The Nonprofit Push for Girls in Engineering
[Pius Wong] It’s December 12, 2016, and this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius] I’m your host Pius Wong. In today’s two-part episode, I talk with two nonprofits on a mission. First, we visit Girlstart, a Texas-based nonprofit that reaches thousands of girls from fourth grade up to junior high with hands-on programs. Second, we talk to the founders of Scientific Adventures for Girls, a newer nonprofit around Oakland, California, that targets younger girls in early elementary. Both organizations are growing, and together they paint a picture of what’s difficult and what works when trying to get young girls into engineering.
[music fade out]
[Pius, narration] When I visited the Austin headquarters of the nonprofit Girlstart earlier this fall, executive director Tamara Hudgins first greeted me with the grand tour. Staff members were busy talking and moving nearby, while Tamara told me about the wall of photos near the hall entrance. The photos showed off Girlstart’s large and dedicated team of women across Texas, and a few places outside Texas. She listed all the different colleges they’re from.
[Tamara Hudgins, in hallway] They’re from either University of Houston or Rice or Lonestar – sorry, I have to think out loud – Lonestar Community College.
[Tamara] When I started here in Fall 2009, we had this many. We call them interns.
[Pius] Are these volunteers?
[Tamara] No, they get paid.
[Tamara] They get paid, and they get puppy time.
[Pius, narration] One of the local staff member’s dogs, Leo, was walking around the offices that day. Girlstart stretched across this whole long, one-story building with multiple activity rooms, but it wasn’t always this way. This used to be a nursing home. Girlstart, itself, started much smaller in 1997, logistically and physically, and six years ago, they only had part of the building.
[Tamara, giving a tour] We had this room and this room for camp, and access to the kitchen, and then the rest of it was a real challenge. There was mold and occasional flooding, and the lobby wasn’t symmetrical.
[Pius, narration] So after Tamara joined in 2009, bringing her previous nonprofit experience in the arts, Girlstart bought the rest of the building in 2010, renovated everything, and doubled their space, and today, the staff used that space to prep for the week’s hands-on after-school projects. Girls would be coming in later to do things like design and test artificial ears out of disposable cups, suture wounded stuffed animals, build a protective package for a potato chip dropped from on high, and program underwater robots to swim. Girlstart had all the equipment, computers, and wonderful stuff to show for it.
[Tamara, giving a tour] Everything can be science here, and that’s one thing we want to encourage girls to think about. Science is everywhere. So sure, it’s Playdough, but it’s also an opportunity to create a soft circuit.
[Pius, narration] Tamara observed how high-tech is so often paired with low-tech in science and engineering, like how a programmable mill still needs a shop vacuum to clean up all the dust, or how their additive 3D printer needs basic painters tape to make sure the objects are built properly. The kids pick up on that.
[Pius, narration] Then, around the corner from the prototyping room, Tamara name-dropped more tech the girls use.
[background music fade in]
[Tamara, giving a tour] Yeah, we have Legos. We have the We-Dos. We have the Mindstorms. We have the newer EV3s. But we’ve also got other robots that are – We’ve got some new, cute robots. I actually don’t know where they are, and it’s probably good that I don’t, because I’d take them all home. They’re called Ozobots.
[Pius, narration] She explained how they’re brand-agnostic when it comes to tech, so they can give girls more learning options.
[Tamara, giving a tour] When girls come to summer camp, one thing that they absolutely do is something related to computer programming, and chances are it’s building a fully playable video game. But we also do a lot of programming using App Inventor or Blockly, or other types of programming environments. There’s this thing called the Kano, which is just a Raspberry Pi-based computer.
[Pius, narration] Near the end of the hall, we came to a smaller meeting room with a window. Through the glass, you could see their second small building that they built in their back yard in 2013. It housed their mini planetarium and a studio space, where girls could do messier projects. Tamara and I settled into the room to talk.
[background music fade out]
[Tamara] Girlstart is science, technology, engineering, and math programs for girls. We are an organization that cares about providing year-round STEM experiences for girls. We want to be for every girl, and the programs that we do are informal, but at the same time they’re rigorous STEM programs, as well.
[Pius] And by “informal,” you just mean outside the classroom?
[Tamara] By “informal” we mean that there is an approach that’s a little bit different than what takes places within the classroom. Within the classroom, for example, if you were a kind of traditional, say, chemistry teacher or what have you, you might have an experiment that you want your students to do, and you’ll be standing up in the front of the classroom, and you’ll say, “OK, everybody, let’s follow this recipe. And if you get it right, it will look like what’s behind this card, which I will not yet show you.” Informal science is more about asking the question and seeing if you can find solutions or answers to that question. What we want girls to do is to master the scientific method and/or the engineering desing process. What we do is, we ask questions, like, “Hey, if I give you this potato chip, and I have you two plastic cups, some duct tape, some cotton balls, and some other stuff, could you make a capsule to keep that potato chip from breaking if you dropped it from three feet off the ground? Four feet off the ground? Five feet off the ground?” We believe that the basis of informal science is fun, and it’s exciting, and it doesn’t just ask, but it really requires all the participants to be doing hands-on activities. And at the end of it, everybody’s solution is completely different. So you’re not going to get fifteen of the same responses, and that’s one thing that’s really exciting about informal science.
[Pius] What are some of those programs? I know that all of them have this hands-on aspect in common, but what are some of the things you do?
[Tamara] So in the course of a year, our two main programs are Girlstart After School, which is in the fall and in the spring. In the summer we have Girlstart Summer Camp. Girlstart After School is the largest after-school program like this in the nation, meaning it’s reaching a lot more girls than even the closest near-peer. It’s also, unlike many after-school programs, not just a jumble of stuff that you do after school just to keep yourself busy. It’s a sequential set of curriculum pieces that then line up to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, and/or Next Generation Science Standards. Because, even though one of our goals is to keep girls excited about science and math, we also want them to do better, frankly, on their science and math tests and their grades. And so my colleagues would get a little bit itchy hearing that we want them to do that, but we do, because the fact is that 75% of the participants in Girlstart After School are high-need girls. So if after participating in Girlstart, because of their high performance on test scores, they’re then recommended for pre-AP coursework, they’re on the path to being STEM-ready.
[Pius] That sounds awesome. So why would someone get itchy about that?
[Tamara] Well, informal education doesn’t always like to be measured, because it’s supposed to be fun, and it’s not supposed to be, you know – it’s not supposed to have that aspect to it. It just so happens that Girlstart programs are both fun and they product results.
[Pius] That’s the goal.
[Tamara] Which is amazing, and that’s why they work that is done here is so special. We find that there are plenty of people who are doing fun science activities, and we find that there are some that are producing results, but there are very few that meet that middle so consistently over time. And, again, especially because most of the girls that we reach are in Title I schools, and they’re high need – you know, 35% of those don’t speak English at home, and of those limited English proficient students, they’re speaking twenty different languages. This is a highly diverse and underserved group in STEM. Not to mention, of course, the fact that 100% of girls are underserved in STEM already.
[Pius, narration] Tamara then gave me some metrics of their girls’ success, and there are a lot. Girlstart had an evaluator look at the 2015-16 cohort of Girlstart’s after-school program across multiple school districts. 82% percent of participants could identify the steps in the engineering design process afterward, for example, and 92% reported enjoying building things to solve problems. In Texas state standardized tests for math and science, Girlstart’s girls also scored better than nonparticipating girls with similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. They were 10-20% more likely to take advanced math and science classes in sixth and seventh grades. The After School Alliance also vouches for these results. The Alliance is a national nonprofit that studies and advocates for programs like this is they’re effective. In a December report, they compared Girlstart to several other successful programs, and they all shared that hands-on, immersive approach to learning.
[Pius, narration] In addition to the after-school program, Tamara also described the summer camp and everything else they do.
[Tamara] So now I’m supposed to talk about summer camp. Summer camp is here at Girlstart in Austin, or in locations to-go, and they are week-long experiences wrapped around a particular theme, whether it be “Under the Sea” or “Circus Circus.” It’s roughly designed to kind of engage a girl’s interest and then pull her in. And so we wrap STEM activities throughout each of these camps. We design and develop our own curriculum. Every year all the curriculum is different, because girls come to us year over year over year, and they don’t want to do the same thing. So those are our two core programs. We have in addition to that a “Girls in STEM” conference every spring, and that brings women who work in STEM together with girls, and they have hands-on activities, which is great. But it is just one day. And then we also do a fair stripe of what we call community STEM programming, either through Starry Nights here at our mini planetarium here in Austin, or by taking STEM activities to a school or to a community location, or to a museum, or to a public library. We’re able to do eighty or ninety of these events every year, reaching thousands and thousands of people, which is great, because then they get to learn about Girlstart. “Oh by the way, maybe we’re at a school near you,” which is great.
[Pius] And these are one-off events.
[Tamara] They’re one-off events, and they’re also free. The vast majority of the programs we do are free. In fact, more than 97% of the people that participate in our programs do so at no cost.
[Pius] So what do they have to pay for?
[Tamara] When girls come to summer camp here in Austin, there is a fee. It’s not the total cost of what it costs us to do it, but there is a fee, and it’s really competitive to other summer camps around here. All of our summer camps to-go, however, whether it be in Hayes County or Elgin – by that I mean Chicagoland – or Sunnyvale, California, or Bellevue, those are done at no cost to participants. So we raise the money for that.
[Pius, narration] I asked how Girlstart grew to do all this since 1997.
[Tamara] You know, there have been a dedicated group of people around Girlstart to kind of get it going. We’re one of the youngest organizations I know that is lucky to have its own building, so they did an amazing amount of work trying to help us get our building, here in Austin, in the near north side, I guess. And in the early 2000s, we got a couple of large National Science Foundation grants to help us really prove – kind of the test of concept, what Girlstart was like, what are the basic tenets of our program, what are the things we believe. Like: We want to be there for every girl, we want to meet girls where they are, we want to do informal science that’s hands-on and engaging. And we want to lead them through every activity to connect with a career. So that was done in response to the fact that it was kind of generally known that there aren’t enough women who work in STEM, OK, so how can we do something to improve that? By working on the pipeline, Girlstart believe that it can inform that number of STEM workers, and particularly a diverse group of STEM workers. So we’ve been working really hard on that, and since 2009 – I got here in the fall of 2009, and we had four after-school programs at that point, and eight summer camp programs at that point. And we had the opportunity to say, OK, what do we want to do a whole lot more of? What do we want to let go of? What’s kind of working? What are we going to really – Where do we think we can go? And even as early as those days, our colleagues were like, we want to see Summer Camp grow. We want to make it huge. We want to make it national. And we believed that our after-school program has a lot of really strong fundamentals, as well.
[Pius, narration] They then grew to 62 after-school programs and 28 summer camp programs today, in the big metro areas of Texas, and in the next year, they want to start replicating the model in another state.
[Tamara] I guess the thing is: we’re not just – And I do mean this in the way that I say it: we’re not drunk on growth. Many organizations are simply drunk on growth for the sake of growth, because, “We’re growing, and we’re this, and our numbers,” all that. We want to value the fact that so many people have asked us to be there. Seventy districts plus, in the state of Texas, are on our waitlists, plus twenty-eight states. That’s a big responsibility. And for us, we take that responsibility seriously. We don’t like saying no to people when they say, “Can you bring Girlstart to us?” So what we’re trying to do is balance the demand with our ability to serve.
[Pius, narration] Tamara said how each office in another city replicates the Austin model but is not a franchise. Girlstart tightly monitors outcomes of every site monthly as they’ve grown. She likened it to measuring KPIs, or key performance indicators, in the corporate world. They’re the same outcomes in the research reports mentioned earlier, and more.
[Tamara] And then we ask questions related to, “Hey, you want to go to college?” Half, roughly, of our after-school girls, would be first-generation college aspirants. That’s a meaningful question. That’s why when we put our STEM crew, who are our dear college students who lead our programs, in front of those girls in a non-traditional way, in a Girlstart t-shirt, those girls look up to those STEM crew members, and they say, “Oh my gosh, she’s like a big sister. I could be her.” That’s exactly what you want, because then they say, “Well, if she can go to college, then I can go to college.”
[Pius, narration] Collecting and using good data might not be easy. How can nonprofits do this?
[Tamara] It is hard, especially if you’re in the nonprofit world. You’re not making any money. You’re doing this because your heart’s on the table. It is hard to have your performance be perceived as being tied to what these survey scores are going to be. And because we hire a lot of teachers, people who are certified teachers, they get itchy when it comes to that. They get really nervous, and they feel like their feet are being held to the fire.
[Pius] Yeah, because they are already seeing that.
[Tamara] It’s like, no, calm down, everybody. I want you to see that data is good. We have a growth mindset here at Girlstart, and we believe that data shows us more information. But we do know that it is a journey to get there.
[Pius] So you guys started small, as well, in ’97.
[Tamara] Totally. Yeah.
[Pius] You faced a lot of struggles. Did you already start measuring all those outcomes even back then, before the NSF grant?
[Tamara] No. No.
[Pius] OK. And that’s where a lot of nonprofits are.
[Tamara] Correct. The NSF, for us, was almost too much evaluation. I mean, it was very intensive, and it was very expensive. At that same time, it taught us, hey, you need to get some processes as part of your day-to-day existence. Once you incorporate those as part of your daily routine or quarterly routine or whatever, it’s not a big deal, so it doesn’t have to be expensive. We use free tools now. Free tools exist. I think one of the challenges is: we have invested in working with evaluators asking us good questions. That is also kind of part of our intellectual property. So we have – we’ve got really good questions that we ask girls, and that tells us a lot. And I think that the more you spend time on asking the right questions, the better your results are going to be.
[Pius] How do you find your participants? You said a lot of them are high-need participants. How do you target them or get them interested?
[Tamara] We work with individual schools, and/or districts. And the schools, in exchange for a free weekly after-school program that comes completely turnkey, we engage a local community member, whether it be a counselor, librarian, or science teacher, what have you. They serve as a coordinator for us, and we pay them an honorarium each semester for their time. And it’s their job to recruit girls, because they know the girls at their school best. They know which girls would be in the middle. We’re not a remedial program, and we are not a program for geeks. Don’t say geeks around us. We’re for every girl. And so what we want to do is, we want to reach those girls in the middle that might benefit from an additional hour-plus every week in science.
[Pius, narration] Since Girlstart relies on these community liaisons to recruit girls, I wanted to speak to a liaison to find out what specifically works. Tamara pointed me to Gail in Austin.
[Gail Penn] So my name is Gail Penn, and right now I’m the Math Coach here at Padron Elementary.
[Pius, narration] Gail works with teachers, parents, and students at Padron, to get girls into Girlstart’s programs. She actually first tried recruiting girls for the after-school program more than three years ago at McBee Elementary on the other side of the neighborhood, and she remembers the challenges.
[Gail] The hardest part is when you first start up the program. Convincing the girls who don’t know anything about the program and what’s going to happen, that it’s a safe thing to do, and a fun thing to do. After you build a reputation – like I have kids that every year, they ask me about it now. When are you going to pass out Girlstart applications? That kind of thing. Because they all know somebody who did it. When they’re in third grade, and they know they can’t do it in third grade, and they want to do it in fourth grade, if you can pull some girls in and give them a really great experience, then it just kind of builds on itself.
[Pius, narration] On top of getting kids interested, Gail also had to work to get teachers on board, too. She said how she had to show teachers that the after-school program was effective and not a huge time-sink, either.
[Gail] Girlstart sends out their curriculum every week, and so I can actually show the teachers: This is what the girls are talking about this week, and how that supplements what they’re doing in the classroom. The only thing that they really have to worry about is getting applications back to me, and after that, it just runs, you know. And it never hurts to give people chocolate, too.
[Pius, narration] Fortunately, Girlstart aims to make it easier for teachers to get involved. Gail liked how the college students who are Girlstart’s teachers also basically serve as logistical managers, handling all the materials needed for lessons, organizing the spreadsheet of student attendance, contacting parents.
[Gail] You don’t think about all the things that are involved with keeping people after school to do something.
[Pius, narration] Gail loves all the outcomes data that Girlstart provides, but just as important for her, she believes that they create a safe place for girls to explore these fields.
[Gail] I do understand that a lot of times, especially men, don’t realize that there is any kind of difference between how men and women are treated in the math and science areas. But there is. To build with our girls a culture of it being all right to be smart, to be mathematically inclined, then I felt like my time was well spent, regardless of what it did to their scores. I feel like if we can bring these ideas and programs and experiences to our girls who are – have less advantages socioeconomically, then when they’re young and forming ideas about how they want their lives to look in five years, ten years, then we can make a difference in what they do with their lives.
[Pius, narration] As you heard, to reach these goals, Girlstart also relies on their team of college student teachers to lead the programs. Tamara explained more of that side of the formula.
[Tamara] Well, at the same time, when you mention challenges, I’d say we spend a lot of time coaching college students.
[Pius] Really. That was one of my questions.
[Tamara] Just things like time management and being responsible. Show up when you say you’re going to show up, because there are twenty-five girls waiting in the school for you. If you don’t show up, you’re going to let them down.
[Pius] So how do you find those college students?
[Tamara] We work with institutions of higher education. We work a lot with UT and UTeach and with the UTeach replication sites across Texas.
[Pius, narration] UT is the University of Texas, and UTeach is a teacher program there and at other universities. Tamara explained how the educational philosophy of Girlstart matches that of UTeach, basically motivating a lot of the hands-on and inquiry-based projects that the girls do there.
[Tamara] My program team is very selective about the college students that they will hire, and when they do hire that particular college student, they work with that college student very specifically to make sure that she’s a good fit.
[Pius] What do you think the next big challenge is in what you all do?
[Tamara] National. We’re going national. It’s not a question of “If?” It’s a question of “When?”
[Pius] When and how.
[Tamara] Yeah. And we know the “how,” because we put together the replication framework, which has really guided our growth and will continue to guide our growth. And also the tools to monitor how we’re doing with this growth. I think that the big scary question is: What’s it going to look like when Girlstart is national to some degree? Summer Camp is one thing, but I mean full, year-round STEM education for girls, you know? Is it the Silicon Valley area? Sunnyvale? Is it Boston? Is it other places? We’re considering a list of potentials, and really, it’s not about whether or not there are, you know, high need girls, because those are everywhere. The question is: Is there sustainable funding, and are there STEM crew? And if we can answer those two questions, we’re good to go.
[Tamara] Our chief purpose is to be there for every girl, and that’s why our collective guilt has fostered the virtual programs that we do, because we do feel – We feel terrible that we can’t be everywhere all at one time. But with DeSTEMber, with our hands-on Wednesdays, and with the suite of curriculum that we’ve made available for educators online and for parents, we believe we’ve at least provided some tools so that if we can’t be in your community year-round, you can at least have something.
[Pius] Yeah. Is there anything else that you want to share?
[Tamara] DeSTEMber 2016 is coming up, and I’m certain that we’ll be ready for it.
[Pius] So that’s a project every day.
[Tamara] Every day through the month of DeSTEMber, which – I can’t say it the other way anymore – there’s a free hands-on activity that you can download using kitchen or household science materials. And the idea is that, especially winding up the school year, having two weeks off at the end of the calendar, leading into science fair season, wouldn’t it be great if kids and caregivers could spend some downtime chillaxing, doing some hands-on science?
[Pius, narration] All these initiatives are different ways to try to reach girls at a younger age. To Tamara it’s critical.
[Tamara] So as Gwynne Shotwell, the COO of SpaceX, will say, when she was – before she got introduced to her first female mechanical engineer, she said, you know, engineers drive trains, right? And it’s true that you need to show girls what their lives would be like when their life is a STEM life. Do you have to chop off your arm? Do you have to wear funny clothes to work? How many dogs do you have? How many cats? What does your house look like? Girls are making these plans at the age of ten and earlier. If you do not get into their mind at that point, it’s done. It’s too late.
[Pius, narration] For more information on Girlstart, the report from the After School Alliance, or other resources mentioned here, you can find links in the show notes or at k12engineering.net.
[longer musical interlude fadeout]
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[Pius, narration] Hi there. It’s Pius again, and on behalf of Rachel and myself, I just want to say thank you again to everyone who voted for us to participate in South by Southwest in March 2017. If you’re in Austin at that time, totally check out our awesome sessions, and I’ve already talked about it previously, so the other thing I wanted to say was: This podcast is officially press for South by Southwest EDU. I’m super excited about it, so if you have any story ideas that you would like us to cover, please let me know. See you there.
[chime sound effect]
[Pius, narration] Scientific Adventures for Girls is a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that aims to engage girls in the early elementary years in STEM fields. The founders of Scientific Adventures spoke with me over Skype about what they’ve learned in this line of work as a newer organization.
[Pius] Thank you to Courtenay and Tiffany for speaking with me today, and can you first just introduce yourselves and your organization? Maybe start with Courtenay.
[Courtenay Carr-Heuer] Sure. Hi, this is Courtenay Carr-Heuer. I am with Scientific Adventures for Girls. We’re a nonprofit in Oakland, California, and we offer after-school and out-of-school STEM classes to young girls in kindergarten through fifth grade.
[Tiffany Sprague] And I’m Tiffany Sprague. I’m cofounder for Scientific Adventures for Girls.
[Pius] So you both sound like you have a lot of experience running organizations and nonprofits, so why did you start this one? Why did you start Scientific Adventures for Girls?
[Courtenay] Well, Tiffany and I are both mothers of young daughters, and what we noticed when we would go to sign our daughters up for after-school STEM-related classes is that they would be one of the only girls in the class, or that the classes that were being offered around STEM were designed and themed around boys. And we noticed that it was hard to find something that, you know, really appealed to girls, so we did a little more research. We were surprised to find how little science is offered in the elementary schools in California. At the time, we were finding that it was between thirty minutes to sixty minutes a week. On top of that, we noticed that in the after-school area, there were not a lot of programs that were accessible to girls in low-income areas, and specifically we were looking in the Oakland/East Bay area. As we all know, one of the other major issues is there’s a lack of women that are going into STEM fields, choosing majors and then going on to work in the fields, so all of that together. And then finding out that it’s actually really key to start introducing STEM in early elementary, and the more we read about it, the more we understood that time period is key to build confidence in STEM and engage especially girls, even starting at the age of five. So all of that together, we decided to make a pilot class, and that was about two and a half years ago. From there it was a great success. We have been scaling up and adding new programs almost every semester.
[Pius] Wow. And how did you start that pilot class? I feel like there’s a story behind that.
[Tiffany] Yeah, so, this is Tiffany. Like Courtenay said, we’re both mothers of daughters. I have two sons, as well. And we started at my son and daughter’s school. We searched through our personal network to find a teacher and put it together, through that. It was fifteen girls that we got from second through fifth grade. We registered them, and actually we found space around the corner from the school. It was actually very serendipitous, I think. It’s a makerspace called Curiosity Hacked. It’s about two blocks away from where the school was. We were able to rent that space. Everything just came together. We found a great teacher. Lots of girls were interested. The space already had tools. It was already outfitted to have a good STEM class.
[Pius] Wow. You sound pretty fortunate.
[Tiffany] I think in our community – we’re in the Bay Area, right – so I think we have that exposure. I think there’s this awareness that there’s not enough being done to send girls and minorities toward the STEM jobs. And so at this school in particular, there were no after-school science programs, so I think parents were already feeling that.
[Courtenay] One of the things that we’ve dealt with – there are a lot of – not a lot – there are programs that are focused on the middle school and high school kids in the area, but there’s just really close to nothing that’s focused – especially making them accessible to all girls. There’s pretty much nothing available for kindergarten through fifth grade. So that was one big reason that Tiffany and I wanted to create this program, is to reach those kids. All of our programs are 100% accessible. We offer partial to full scholarships. We’re trying to reach all girls. That’s our mission. There’s numerous programs that are for-profit, just private after-school programs, but a lot of kids can’t afford that. So that’s why we’re trying to get into those schools and make this something that every kid can take.
[Pius] Are you basically the only nonprofit serving that demographic, then?
[Courtenay] So there’s Techbridge, which is an organization that’s been around about sixteen years. Linda Kekelis founded the organization, and she started reaching out to girls in middle school and high school offering after-school classes in STEM. And when Tiffany and I first started, she was very helpful in kind of talking to us about how she got her organization started, which helped us figure out things that we needed to do to make our program successful. But in terms of the ages, we are the only one that we’ve run across that solely focuses on kindergarten through fifth, and there’s other programs – like Girls Inc, also a great after-school program, they do general after-school. We’ve actually taught their STEM program at two of their locations. But again, that’s solely what we do, and we’re one of the only organizations that we’ve run across that does it.
[Tiffany] For girls.
[Pius] Can I talk about your content a little bit? What differentiates a curriculum for girls versus boys?
[Tiffany] We’ve basically done research on what interests girls at an early age. I think Courtenay might have mentioned, when we were looking for our own daughters to join science enrichment classes, a lot of the topics were not appealing, just be listening to the names, like “build and destroy,” stuff around cars, and –
[Courtenay] Star Wars.
[Tiffany] You know, things that are – this is broadly speaking, of course – appealing. I think that there’s also an awareness around that. So we wanted to make our content appealing, in a marketing flyer, like if a parent of a daughter read the flyer together, what would get them excited? The advantage of being small is that we can kind of do a little bit of background and maybe customize to maybe what our, what the girls that are enrolled in our program like. Largely we saw that they were interested in animals, they were interested in being messy, drawing, incorporating the arts, you know the STEAM component. So we made our titles especially appealing to girls. We had a program on biomimicry. So we knew the girls in these classes were interested in animals. So learn about animals, and learn how we can learn engineering from animals. So that whole curriculum was designed around, you know, the – what’s it called? The attention-getter was the animals, but we snuck in engineering, if you will. You know, why are beavers like engineers? In learning how to build like beavers. Or learning, how does flight happen? And we look at birds. So they built bird wings.
[Courtenay] And tested them.
[Tiffany] And tested them. A lot of our girls love to get their hands on things. So all of our projects are hands-on. You know, squishy circuits. So they make their own Playdough, make their own conductive and insulating dough. They get to color it whatever color they want it to be. They pick the colors of their LEDs. And we also know that girls like to help people, and so we try to make our projects very – with a social context, like how can engineering help the world? So we just finished the East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland. And our booth was: design a tool for good. So there was a model human chest cavity with tumors in it, which were candy bars. So we’re like, you can be either a biomedical engineer or a doctor and design a tool to help extract the candy bars or the tumors without breaking a blood vessel. So we had cups of red water, and if they spilled it, then that would be it. They broke the blood vessel.
[Pius] That’s really neat. I haven’t heard of an activity like that before.
[Tiffany] Yeah, so give it a social context. Why is engineering helpful and important?
[Pius] So it also sounds like you have a great team to help you create this content, including teachers. How did you get them, and what other successes have you had in Scientific Adventures?
[Courtenay] Well, in terms of our teachers, we’ve been pretty lucky. So we started out only a couple of years ago finding women two ways. Women who – their careers were in STEM, and they were now parents, themselves, and they now wanted to pass on their passion for STEM through teaching. And then we reached out to people who are teachers during the school day and bring that background into teaching STEM. And we’ve been really happy with our teachers, because they are the program, and that’s what’s going to make these girls walk away with a really positive attitude about STEM. And we hope to continue that and be confident about STEM as they move forward. It’s because of these teachers. And we hear so many, so many stories about women who are older, and they talk about why get into STEM, and it’s because of a teacher, most of the time, or a mentor, and a lot of these girls have no mentors that are in the STEM fields. So this is an opportunity for them to be exposed to this. One thing that we do similar to Techbridge is we bring in role models to every session and introduce the girls to – That’s another way we incorporate engineering. We bring a lot of engineering role models and female role models to talk about their jobs. What they do, why they chose the field, and then do a project with the girls, which is highly successful. And it gives the girls the opportunity to see themselves in a role like that. Research shows that a lot of women don’t go into these fields because they don’t see themselves as a STEM professional, so we’re trying to change that. Even a big part of that is our teachers. They become the STEM role model for these girls. We hear that all that time. We do pre- and post-surveys, and we see that a lot in the end. Do you have any STEM role models? And they’ll list off the assistant or head teachers that we have in the classes.
[Pius] Right. You described several successes already in the program, and the content sounds really relevant for what engineering students in middle school and high school and college eventually do. What about some of the challenges that you have faced? As an organization, do you have any challenges that you can discuss?
[Tiffany] I mean, I think all nonprofits – well maybe not all – but a lot of nonprofits face fundraising challenges. We’re finding that there is quite a bit of demand for our program, and it’s just kind of, trying to allocate resources, or find more resources to expand. I think that’s been probably our biggest challenge. You know we just started nearly three years, probably February will be three years, and I feel like on such a lean budget, and really we just started with our own personal networking and fundraising – to be able to reach 600 kids I think is a great success, but a challenge is trying to expand even more. That is part of our long-term strategy, is to make it accessible in the East Bay. That’s a big challenge.
[Courtenay] And one of the things that we touched on earlier that has come up a lot lately is: There’s more and more research – I mean, even if you look at President Obama and quotes and things he’s done at the White House – has talked about how important it is to start STEM education earlier, in early elementary, like we’re doing in kindergarten. In the past it’s really been a focus in middle school and high school, but we’ve been hearing constantly – we were just at a conference last week in San Francisco – The whole panel agreed, if you wait to sixth grade to try to engage kids in STEM, it’s too late. Girls will start to lose confidence in their abilities in STEM as early as third and fourth grade. One thing is we’re educating people, too, now to say, hey, it’s important to start STEM in kindergarten. Everybody things, oh, that’s something they’ll do in middle school. Even computer science, coding, people have said, oh, you know, you don’t need to start that early with that. Yes you can, and yes you do, because this is something that they’re really excited about, and if you get them excited about it early on, they’re more likely to hang on to that through the difficult times of middle school and high school and college, going into these careers.
[Tiffany] It’s just normalizing it early on, that science and math is not something that you just are. It’s something that’s learned, and it’s something that’s important. And I think beyond – I mean just developmentally, that’s how kids – if you start off early on… That is a big challenge, I think, for us: convincing donors that to invest in early STEM education is really the way to go.
[Pius] Yeah. What strategies do you use? I know that in the beginning you said that you reached out to your personal network, but if you’re talking to people who don’t know you, how can you convince them that it’s worthwhile to educate to this girls in this way?
[Courtenay] It’s still networking. So there’s a lot of firms in the Bay Area. We’ve started by reaching out to local firms that are either headquartered or located right around the areas where most of our classes are being held, and that’s been somewhat successful. So we’re starting small and asking for small grants to support local programs. And again, though, it’s trying to get an in at the company. Either going in and talking to them, having some kind of conversation about who we are and what we do. Inviting role models from the firm to come into our classes so they can see first-hand what we do has been helpful. Trying to make them clearly understand how this is going to benefit their community. And it’s pretty easy to do that, because I think it’s straightforward, especially in Silicon Valley. We’re going to need so many more young people going into these fields in the next five, ten, twenty years. This is only going to benefit them.
[Pius] Right, right. That’s an interesting way to put it, because in some conversations I’ve heard that it might be challenging to convince to donate just because the payoff might be in fifteen years and not like in the next investment cycle, or whatever it is. Does that matter to the companies in Silicon Valley?
[Tiffany] Well, there are companies out there who’s made their mission, their short-term mission, to get more women interested, and to hire more women. Companies – I think Intel, Google, made – or have publicly made that, are saying they’re making an effort to hire more women.
[Courtenay] But they do seem to be focusing on high school, we’ve noticed. When we’ve talked to those companies, they’re still trying to get – that’s their focus, middle school and high school.
[Tiffany] I think what’s worked, I think a good strategy is finding women in this companies who completely understand that you should start early. And so they in turn become our champions and get us in and get us to meeting the right people. And once they come into our class, too, and observe what good we’re doing, that’s also very convincing, you know. We can spout off research and statistics, but inviting the role model to classes is, I think, pretty successful.
[Pius] Do you have any other news that you’d like to share? I know you already spoke about a lot of the things you’re going to be doing.
[Courtenay] So one of the things that we’re really trying to do, besides engaging the girls in STEM, is also engaging their families, their caregivers in the process, and there’s a couple of ways that we do that. In all of our after-school classes, right after the class the teacher will send an email to the parents when possible letting them know what they did in class, sending them pictures, talking about the project and discussion questions they can talk about at home. Now at our drop-in library programs that we’re doing in Oakland at 81st and Eastmont, it’s a drop-in program, so the kids come in, but we also invite the parents to sit down and do the projects with them. This is an area that we think is important, and it’s going to benefit everyone in the long-term if we get the families engaged, as well. The other thing, as our organization is growing – so one area that we really try to focus on is finding people to collaborate with. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s a natural thing to start working with other organizations so that as we build this pipeline out starting at the age of five, that they’re going to have other programs to go to that’s going to take them all the way through high school and even college. And you know, we’ve served almost six hundred kids in the last two and a half years, and doing that, you know, it’s also by being efficient, what we’re doing and collaborating with others so we can get the most out of program for the girls.
[Pius] Well Courtenay and Tiffany, thank you so much for speaking with me. It was really great to hear about what you do.
[Courtenay] Thank you so much for having us.
[Tiffany] Thank you, Pius.
[music fade in]
[Pius] You can find links to the Scientific Adventures for Girls website in the show notes, and the website has contact information for Courtenay and Tiffany.
[Pius] A big thank you to everyone in today’s stories, including Tamara Hudgins of Girlstart and Gail Penn of Padron Elementary in Austin, Texas, and Courtenay Carr-Heuer and Tiffany Sprague of Scientific Adventures for Girls in Oakland, California. Please subscribe to the show and leave reviews on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher, and send comments on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook. You can find links at k12engineering.net.
[Pius] Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze [radio edit]. Our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
[Pius] I am pleased to have you as a listener and hope you tune in again.