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.
Sharon Jayson
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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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