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Everybody knows about the Girl Scouts. Once a year they’re everywhere selling delicious Thin Mints and Samoas. But Girl Scouts do more than sell cookies; they provide a safe environment in which girls can explore science and technology.
Overall the United States lags behind the rest of the world in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Recently US students finished 25th in math and 17th in science compared to 31 other countries. Besides the gap between the US and the world, there is a gap between boys and girls in STEM education that starts as early as elementary school. According to the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) the gap is “small, but persistent.” The gap widens through high school and college, and a report from the Utah Women and Education Initiative shows only 19 percent of women in Utah study in STEM related fields.
In Utah’s workforce only 17 percent of all STEM related jobs are held by women compared to a national average of 25 percent.
Brandy Strand is the program manager for Girl Scouts of Utah. Her enthusiasm for the program is contagious. She believes that Girl Scouts is about trying new things. “You never know if you’ll like something until you try it.” To that end they added STEM to their core initiatives in order to encourage girls to explore fields of study they might not otherwise consider. One of the reasons girls are not drawn to science and technology, according to NAEP, is that a lot of girls are reluctant to stand out in a school setting. They are more likely to stand back and keep quiet due to a fear of giving the wrong answer. Girl Scouts provide experiences in a safe, non-threatening environment. Utah Girl Scouts has built partnerships to help them promote science exploration. They partner with the Microsoft store at City Creek to expose the girls to technology programs such as digital photography, Publisher,and Skype.
Another partner is the University of Utah Engineering Department. Together they sponsor an all-day engineering event for Girl Scouts across the state. They’ve also started to work with the University of Utah’s Game Development Department, recently named the best in the country.
To show girls science isn’t about old guys with glasses using beakers in a lab, the Girls Scouts partnered with Lego League. There are four teams in Utah and the girls compete in a robotic competition. From start to finish they design, build and program their own robots and then compete against the other teams. The girls are lining up to participate on one of the teams. The Lego League really helps girls get excited about science and technology. Savannah Wallace, age 12 and into her fourth year with the Lego League says, “I like it because we learn more about technology, and I like to do teamwork. It also helps to learn how to deal with everyday problems and how to come up with a solution.”
The partnerships are a good way to expose the girls to a lot of different areas of science and technology. The hunt for new partners is an ongoing process. They are always looking for new volunteers as well. One thing hasn’t changed about Girls Scouts. The girls can still earn badges. What has changed is the different fields available. There are still badges available in cooking and first aid, but girls can now earn badges for digital arts, website design and geocaching. Girl Scouts can earn a Gold Award that is similar to an Eagle Scout achievement. The girls need to put in 80 hours on a project that will “make the world a better place with a sustainable change.” It is not just about doing a good deed, but doing something that will effect a real ongoing change. One girl recently completed her Gold Award by working with the Bioscience Research Team at the University of Utah on a population genetics study for southern right whales. The work she did with genetic coding and DNA analysis will be included in a study of this rare whale species. She now plans to enter college and become a doctor.
Brandy says that the Engineering Day last spring was a great way to provide experience based education opportunities for the girls. Participation is key. It wasn’t just about engineering, but about the girls discovering their own curiosity about the world around them. “The girls are so excited to try something new. Engineering Day opened their eyes.”§