Girlstart exists to increase kindergarten-12th grade girls’ engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). We sat down with Girlstart’s Executive Director Tamara Hudgins to talk about how girls can be discouraged from interest in STEM due to social bias or inequity - and how Girlstart’s mission is to solve this.
Hudgins’ passion for spreading this message is contagious. She knows that girls frequently begin planning for the future early in their lives, even down to small details.
"Girls as early as the age of ten are imagining what their life will look like,” Hudgins said. “What house they'll live in, how many dogs and cats they're gonna have, what the future holds for them.”
Hudgins sees a great opportunity to introduce young women to the possibility of an engineering careers early. The idea is simply not presented to most girls, so Girlstart takes its responsibility seriously.
“They make these plans, but they make them without knowing some of the ingredients of what their career's gonna be like,” Hudgins said. “And we know here at Girlstart that if we have this conversation early with girls, before they start creating those clouds in the sky, then we can get them to be talking about engineering as part of their future."
Growing up, Hudgins had a specific expertise and enthusiasm for taking apart and reassembling household items, but the idea of engineering never even occurred to her. She never saw what practical applications of engineering would look like, something that now drives her as she shows girls STEM in action at Girlstart.
“I didn’t know what engineering would look like,” Hudgins said. Many of us are here because we would have been great in science but we didn’t know what it would be in our lives. We want girls to see that it's natural to be a grown-up woman and be working in a STEM field and that's so important.”
Once they’ve made an early impression on girls, Girlstart focuses on teaching the inherent freedom and creativity within STEM programs. Instead of asking girls to engineer new things from the start, the program asks girls for design ideas, which starts to change their perceptions of engineering.
"They'll say, 'I'm not doing science, what are you talking about?'” Hudgins said. “If they realize that they don't have to be something different to do science, then that means it's natural to them. It means science can be a part of who they are and they can embrace it. We believe engineering is all about creativity and curiosity. If we focus on those, then we're able to get them in and keep them.”
Through teaching students the direct connection between their perceptions of design and the practical uses of STEM fields, Girlstart helps girls realize how fun engineering can be - but the mission still has some roadblocks to clear. Hudgins addressed the difficulty in encouraging girls to pursue a career with a tough current environment for women.
"By encouraging more girls to take on STEM majors and careers that we are putting them in a little bit of a sticky situation because right now,” she said, “the climate is not necessarily supportive or positive for women working in STEM fields. The women who are in STEM are still considered pioneers, and that's crazy!”
Though the issue persists, Hudgins’ proposed solution is simple: hire more women.
“We know that will get better, and it will get better when there are more of them," said Hudgins.
In many instances, women in the engineering workplace have not only succeeded, but improved products with their unique perspective. Hudgins experienced a situation where men worked together to create a smartphone app that can be accessed while staying in the user’s front pocket, but the lone female engineer brought up the fact that women do not keep phones in their pockets.
“Regardless of the vehicle you put it in, you’re not putting it in your front pocket. That’s alienating 51 percent of your potential users,” Hudgins said. “That’s a design fail that got weeded out early on because the voice of the 51 percent was represented. That approach to engineering challenges is a way we know women have to be involved.”
Girlstart’s STEM outreach program successfully teaches young women the possibilities and fun of engineering, while helping them overcome the challenges they may face. (Speaking of challenges, here's what Hudgins had to say about making mistakes.)
"We want girls to feel like they are resilient, they are brave, creative, and curious, and that they have the skills to create the future for themselves, regardless of the other choices they make,” said Hudgins.
NI and Girlstart
Austin-based Girlstart continues to grow, and here at NI we’re excited to help support that growth in a variety of ways. Girlstart turns 20 this year, growing from eight summer camps and four after school programs to 28 summer camps and 70 after school programs in the last seven years. In the future, they plan to have campuses in Boston and Silicon Valley within two years. “Every girl is underserved in STEM, there are high-need schools everywhere, there are college students all over the place that we could train to lead our programs,” Hudgins said. “It's gonna be time before we're everywhere, but we're focused more on doing this right than getting billions and billions served. But if we’re able to increase scale effectively, then there could be more Girlstart in the future.”