Imagine the world in 2030, more resource-constrained than ever—but then suddenly benefitting from a breakthrough approach to harnessing wind energy. What if the person capable of hatching that innovation is, today, a middle-school girl in a village in Ecuador? Will it happen? Or think closer to home: If the cure for cystic fibrosis is just waiting in the mind of a girl in your community, will it ever see the light of day?
If we could only put the same level of resources into inspiring girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that we do into discovering America's Next Top Model, the chance wouldn't seem so remote. At the very least, the proportion of STEM professionals who are female—currently, in engineering, a paltry 11 percent—would grow.
It's no secret that we need more women in STEM. Our economy's major employers compete for the female graduates we do produce. So what's holding back the supply?
Some people look at the gender composition of graduating classes and conclude that girls just aren't as interested as boys are in engineering. If girls don't want to be computer scientists when they grow up, some ask, isn't that their choice? But I have the proof that they do, under the right circumstances. When the bell rings at the end of the day at schools in Oakland, CA I see a wave of girls heading for after-school programs, eager to stick around and do science.
Meet the girls participating in Techbridge. They tinker and use tools, and take apart things like lawnmower engines and hairdryers to learn how they work. They build their own green houses and learn about renewable energy. They make solar night lights, and in doing so learn to solder. And while it isn't their intention when they start, they also make mistakes—and learn to appreciate how mistakes are part of the process. They develop the confidence to persevere. As they team up for design challenges, they especially like to learn in the company of other girls.
Techbridge is a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, CA, whose mission is to promote girls' interest and skills in science, technology, and engineering. We do this through the programs we run, and by developing resources for others—teachers, role models, families, and partners like the Girl Scouts. We know the first step is engagement, letting girls have fun with the projects we introduce. Research shows that an early interest in science or engineering is a better indicator of the likelihood of pursuing a career in these fields than grades. But we can't stop there. For a girl to translate an early interest into a passion for becoming a mechanical engineer or biotech entrepreneur, she also needs early exposure to women who hold such careers. We need to provide girls with role models.
Techbridge can't do that alone—role models are busy working in places that have recognized and snapped up their talent. We can do it, however, with partners from industry. When major employers not only provide funding for our after-school programs but also support employee outreach, girls gain access to role models like Chevron geologists, Google programmers, and <a href="http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/corporate-responsibility/intel-foundation.html">Intel </a>engineers—all of whom have visited our after-school programs and led activities that offer a glimpse into their careers.
Role models make the difference by connecting with our girls on a personal level and sharing their passion and the personal stories of how they came to be the professionals they are. They help dispel stereotypes about engineering and who can be a computer scientist. Their enthusiasm conveys that these careers are personally and professionally rewarding. The work they describe shows that as a scientist or engineer you can make the world a better place—an aspiration for many girls.
We have to go out of our way to provide such models because too few girls have made their way into technical fields in the past. We can't count on a girl's having a STEM role model already in the women she knows well—her mother, relatives, and neighbors. When a girl meets a woman succeeding in STEM, it expands the range of careers she considers as she imagines her own future.
We know it works. Last year's evaluation of Techbridge's impact showed increases in participating girls' skills and confidence. Now, 90 percent of them believe engineering is a good career for women, and 89 percent think teamwork is good for solving problems. And guess how many are more interested than they had been in working in science, technology, and engineering? No fewer than 83 percent.
Results like this are what keep us working energetically to build corporate partnerships—even when we experience the occasional dispiriting setback. We've seen, for example, a corporate field trip that we had perfected over the years suspended as priorities there changed. In a downturn-related layoff, our liaison to another company lost her job. Some of the best role models we've attracted, and many we've invested to develop (because role modeling is a skill built by training, too) find it difficult in this tough economy to leave their workplaces and volunteer in afternoon programs.
The companies most likely to stay the course are those who value the payback in the long term. They know that the middle schoolers who come to their site are the next generation of workers, and that among them may be the one whose idea will revolutionize their business.
If your organization is an employer of science, engineering, and technology talent, please do what you can to reach out and inspire a girl. Do it by supporting programs like Techbridge that offer STEM programming in and out of school. But also do it by encouraging the women on your staff to be role models—to visit a classroom or host a field trip. Show that you value outreach by providing support and training for it, and even better, by mentoring a girl yourself. Not only will you discover how much students learn from role models and field trips, you'll discover how your organization benefits in return. We hear from role models how much their outreach deepens their sense of connection to their job, their staff, and their field. Corporate recruiters tell us that top talent is more attracted to organizations that believe in workers getting involved and giving back to their community.
Returns like this are hard to quantify, but we never hear from corporate partners that they aren't worth the investment. Girls who go through Techbridge programs have a habit of returning years later and telling us how a role model they met in middle school, or a field trip in high school, turned them on to engineering. When they faced a roadblock—a challenging class, a less than supportive study group —they remembered what a role model taught them. And they didn't give up.
Dr. Linda Kekelis is Executive Director at Techbridge, which empowers girls by inspiring them in science, technology, and engineering. The program has served over 10,000 girls in after-school and summer programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally through partnerships with Girl Scout councils and other girl-serving groups.