AUSTIN—Its rooms explode with pink and purple, with teal and green, marking this spot as clearly a girl space. But in this technocentric city, the nonprofit Girlstart is focused on a formula to shift gender stereotypes and to create new mind-sets that can ripple through the U.S. economy.
Girlstart is all about inspiring girls in elementary and middle school to flaunt their smarts and to encourage them to consider science, technology, engineering, and math (known as STEM) for their futures. “Just because we view science as informal and personal, it is real science,” says Tamara Hudgins, Girlstart’s executive director. “Pink is not incompatible with doing real science.”
“Every activity we do is leading to a career,” she adds, hopeful that the next generation of aerospace engineers, video-game designers, astronomers, or geologists may well take root at Girlstart.
At a time when STEM education and the need for workers in those burgeoning fields has become a national priority, data show that women are seriously underrepresented. Although women fill almost half of all American jobs, they account for less than a quarter of the STEM workforce, according to a 2011 Commerce Department report. They earn “a disproportionately low share” of undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering, the report found. Even when they hold a tech-relevant degree, women are more likely than men to veer away from STEM careers and to go into education or health care instead.
Girlstart was founded in 1997 by Rachel Muir, an Austin native. “I started it when I was 26 years old, in the living room of my apartment, with $500 and a credit card,” she says. She had been “really discouraged” in math and science growing up and felt that her “poor performance” in those subjects had far-reaching effects. She gave up her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian because it required science and math, and she got kicked out of the University of Texas (Austin) business school because of a D in business calculus. “I was forced to change my major,” she says, “and I changed to liberal arts.” She feared that other girls were equally unprepared to pursue lucrative science-related careers. In the late 1990s, Muir says, Austin’s booming high-tech industry recruited employees right out of high school, and “girls were definitely left out of the equation.”
Girlstart offers a year-round menu of after-school programs, summer camps, conferences, and community events. The program is already entrenched in central Texas and across the state—in the Rio Grande Valley, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, and around Houston and San Antonio. Its participants are diverse: 58 percent are Latina, 70 percent qualify for subsidized school lunches, and 42 percent would be the first in their families to attend college. Girlstart’s summer camps have been offered in six other states, including California. Altogether, the program has reached almost 50,000 girls from coast to coast.
Girlstart’s after-school clubs are for fourth- through sixth-graders, who meet once a week for the sort of hands-on collaboration they might encounter in the real world of work. Through activities aligned with the state’s science curriculum, girls spend about an hour conducting experiments to explore a concept—friction, say, or density—and hearing about related careers. They’ve used Oreos to learn about phases of the moon and cleaned a feather covered in oil to understand how oil spills harm wildlife.
The program teaches more than the substance of science; it can also be a confidence-builder. Fifth-grader Sheyenne Williams, 11, is in her second year of Girlstart’s after-school program at Tobias Elementary School in Kyle, a half-hour’s drive south of Austin. “Before I came into Girlstart, I was a lot more shy—out in general, with my parents, or in class,” she says. “This has helped me a lot.”
The local weeklong summer camps take place at Girlstart’s headquarters in North Austin. The 7,900-square-foot one-time nursing home has beanbag seats and a bedazzled decor. Campers have dissected sheep hearts, produced animated commercials, created video games and apps, and engineered robots and bumper cars. Community activities include astronomy shows at the on-site mini-planetarium and free events on topics such as the weather or “spooky” science.
Carly May, now 19, attended Girlstart’s camp for three summers and later worked there and at the after-school programs. “Girlstart gets you right at the perfect age when it is still cool to like math and science,” she says. “Then you start hearing those words: ‘You’re a nerd. You’re a geek.’ … We stay away from using those words at Girlstart.” A sophomore at UT-Austin, she is majoring in aerospace engineering.
Rob Dyer is the principal of an elementary school in Georgetown, north of Austin, that offers Girlstart After School. He is also the father of three daughters, ages 6 to 13. “As a dad, I want my daughters to have every opportunity that they can,” he says. “My wife is a CPA—an accountant—a math person. We’ve worked really hard to encourage our girls to study math and get involved in science. We’re pretty big on girl power in our family.”
Girlstart’s activities require technology at the girls’ fingertips, often courtesy of the companies that may someday reap the rewards of these efforts to inspire. Girlstart’s financial supporters include locally based Dell, Samsung, Austin Semiconductor, and Silicon Laboratories, as well as Google, Intel, and Oracle, offering an array of grants, contributions, in-kind donations, and volunteer time. Nearly $900,000 in corporate and foundation funds and more than $40,000 worth of donated technology contributed to Girlstart’s 2015 budget of almost $1.3 million. During the 2014-2015 school year, Girlstart’s expenditures amounted to $10.34 per girl per hour, according to Hudgins—“cheap, given the cost of a generalist babysitter,” she says. “And that doesn’t have anything to do with the content quality.”
The number of Girlstart’s after-school programs has leapt from four in 2009, when Hudgins became its leader, to 54 in 2015, serving about 1,400 girls. “We are ready to be everywhere in America right now,” Hudgins says. “The biggest obstacle is finding people who have resources who can help us flip that switch.” She looks forward in 2017 to replicating Girlstart’s three-pronged approach—after-school programs, summer camps, and community outreach—in Silicon Valley and other locales boasting “a stable base of philanthropy” along with corporations and communities that value tech-focused education.
“Girlstart has shown excellent outcomes in what they’re trying to achieve and accomplish,” says Anita Krishnamurthi, vice president for STEM at the Afterschool Alliance, an advocacy group in Washington. Girlstart’s own study found that 23 percent more of its Austin district participants passed the statewide science test in fifth grade than girls who didn’t participate—or boys—and 15 percent more passed the math test. No independent analyses have been done, however.
“There’s plenty of room for Girlstart to go national,” Krishnamurthi says, although it isn’t the only program that could be scaled up. The Afterschool Alliance has also cited the Science Club for Girls in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Techbridge, in the San Francisco Bay area, for their programs geared to girls. Girl Scouts and Girls Inc., too, have programs that focus on science-related education. “They all have different models,” Krishnamurthi says, but “what they all have in common is a desire to reach girls with engaging programming.”
Hudgins’s efforts in Austin haven’t gone unrecognized. Last March, she was inducted into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame, which recognizes trendsetters in the digital industries. In September, the White House named Girlstart as one of the nation’s “Bright Spots,” as part of an initiative to support Latino educational attainment.
For the 45-year-old Hudgins, this passion for girls and science is a way to reconcile her past. Engineers run in her family, but only among the men. Hudgins says she couldn’t visualize herself as an engineer, so she majored in art history and went on to earn a PhD. “I should have been a mechanical engineer,” she says. “I kick myself every other day for not getting into mechanical engineering, because I would have been good at it.”
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