Allstate Youth Empowerment Award

Girls ♥ Science

Tech-minded preteens: Girlstart participants (from left) Sheyenne Williams, Aribella Peters, and Faith Collier, with the program's director, Tamara Hudgins, at Tobias Elementary School in Kyle, Texas.
JOEL SALCIDO
Sharon Jayson
Add to Briefcase
Sharon Jayson
Jan. 26, 2016, 12:30 p.m.

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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