No Boys Allowed: 6 STEM Programs That Empower Girls

The importance of girls in the math and sciences fields is a hot topic right now. Labor experts have long complained about the lack of qualified workers for a rapidly growing number of STEM jobs (experts say there will be a deficit of 5 million by 2020), and we’ve finally connected that shortage with a lack of women studying and working in those fields.

Gender biases and lack of mentoring in classrooms and workplaces have a lot to do with women dropping out of STEM career tracks. But perhaps even more important are the messages we send girls during their formative years. It’s subtle, but the differences in the way we speak to and treat boys and girls can have a huge impact on their self-esteem and sense of capability.

Take this letter from a mom to Lands’ End, which questions why “mighty” apparel for boys has realistic astronomy graphics, while “adorable” clothes for girls feature rhinestone stars. How exactly should she explain to her science-loving, 9-year-old daughter why “girl” clothes are cartoony, unrealistic versions of boy clothes?

Is the message here that girls can’t understand science, or that they just shouldn’t be interested in it?

Taking these realities to heart as much as a little girl might, many great organizations have been created to help drown out messages that STEM isn’t for everyone. That’s the first order of business; the second varies by the group, but usually involves inspiring, engaging and encouraging girls K-12 to explore, experiment and generally get their hands dirty.

Here’s a peek at some of the great work STEM for girls organizations are doing — and how you, the teacher, can take advantage of their research and resources in your own classroom:

National Girls Collaborative Project

The goal of the National Girls Collaborative Project is to help other organizations working with girls in STEM connect with each other — to share their resources, research and contacts to bolster all efforts together. Their most recent work focuses on increasing the capacity of girl-serving programs to reach girls, providing professional development to “collaboratives,” and giving school counselors access to materials that will make them more aware of barriers to girls’ engagement in STEM.

Get involved: Find a “collaborative” near you. They act as a hub for local programs for getting access to resources and girl-serving STEM programs. Also, check out programs and resources near you to help make a difference at your school.

Engineer Girl

Engineer Girl (EG) is a website designed to get girls excited about engineering — what it is, what it can be and how a girl can participate (through contests, clubs and scholarships). Featuring interviews with female engineers, explanations of common engineering subject areas, and even an opportunity to virtually “try on” careers, EG seeks to make the field a tangible job option years down the road — and a fun, educational hobby for girls right now.

Get involved: Click over to EG’s “educators” page for resources, tips and ways to support GE clubs and programs.

Science Cheerleaders

If the idea of cheerleaders at an event like the USA Science & Engineering Festival sounds more Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell on SNL than serving girls in STEM, we might want to add a key piece of information: The Science Cheerleaders (SC) are all women studying and/or working in STEM! Created by former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, SC has three main goals:

  1. To draw more awareness to science events that receive much less coverage than sports games.
  2. To challenge the “dumb cheerleader” stereotypes, and
  3. To use a traditionally girly activity to pique the interest of young women considering STEM education and careers.

Get involved: Help with an event! The founders are always looking for volunteers for everything from producing videos to writing blogs posts.

Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code (GWS) work to reach gender parity in a field particularly dominated by white males: computing. By working to expose girls to computer science early on and helping them get comfortable with basic computing skills, the Girls Who Code programs are hoping to empower and qualify women to pursue the 1.4 million computer specialist job openings that will be available in 2020 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). The organization has launched clubs in schools across the country using programs developed by teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs.

Get involved: Visit this page to apply to bring a Girls Who Code program to your school or organization.

Great Science for Girls

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Great Science for Girls helps get much-needed resources and services to afterschool centers that combat sexism, including professional development institutes, tech help, evidence-based curriculum suggestions and a guide to best practices for gender equity. The organization helps make afterschool centers (already a venue for reaching “underrepresented” groups of students) into safe spaces where girls can ask questions, get their hands dirty, take risks, and learn to lead.

Get involved: Click over to the site’s Take Action page to get tools for your after-school center or intermediary organization.

Girls Inc. Operation SMART

Girls Inc. Operation SMART takes down Enemy No. 1 of girls in STEM: the subtle messages girls get that they’re not equipped for math and science. Working with girls in the “tween” years (when peer pressure is at its worst), Operation SMART programs reinforce girls’ interest in STEM and show them that careers in the field are very viable options. The program’s tenets also encourage girls making “big, interesting mistakes,” get past the “yuck” factor of messy experiments, and believe that yes, they actually are capable of taking apart machinery and using tools. Beyond their own educational offerings, Girls Inc. also helps inform policymakers and the media about girls’ issues and needs, driving change on a large scale.

Get involved: Learn more about the legislation Girls Inc. supports and how you can help girls’ voices be heard through your state senators and representatives.

Got a passion for STEM and helping girls get involved? We need more teachers like you! Learn more about how to become a teacher and start making a difference with underrepresented students.

— Cathy Vandewater