November 9, 2016

What we gain when we support girls in math and science

The executive director of Girlstart says students will succeed in the STEM field if we give them the right tools

Renewal Award winner Girlstart provides year-round STEM education programs for K-12 girls. Photo courtesy of Girlstart

A significant fork in the road of a child’s future achievement emerges in the spring of the 5th grade. Children are generally 9 or 10 at this point, and I would hazard a guess that most parents are beginning to rebalance their sleep levels, and are perhaps more worried about the prospect of their child as a tween and teen than about their child’s future career at this point. I’m here to tell you, 5th grade changes everything.

Girlstart was grateful to be recognized with a Renewal Award for its work to improve the state of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for girls, and for its ability to scale. At the beginning of 2016, we were honored that The Atlantic and Allstate identified our best practices to improve the lives of girls and their future families by helping them become STEM-ready at high school and college. Now, Girlstart is pleased to be able to share a new set of data outcomes that show how the organization is making an impact.

We know that the United States doesn’t have enough well-prepared STEM workers. Jobs in STEM fields outnumber the potential candidate pool by nearly 2 to 1—and is likely to increase in the future—which is why many of the nation’s STEM-related companies rely so heavily on H1-B visas, a permit that allows skilled foreign workers to legally work in the U.S. These companies know that having enough skilled and trained workers is vital to their strength and competitiveness. But would it not be a whole lot more efficient to nurture our own children to take on these jobs? There are plenty of children in the U.S. who aspire to work in great jobs, but the systems we have in place by and large leave these children behind their peers in other countries. That is a huge national talent problem.

In addition to a lack of competitiveness in the ways that we prepare children for highly technical careers, we also know that we don’t have enough diversity in the STEM field generally. A diverse and dynamic workforce create stronger and smarter products and services for a diverse set of consumers. But there are systemic challenges that discourage girls—not to mention children of low-socioeconomic backgrounds—from considering how they might take on a STEM major at college, with the goal of a STEM career after graduation. And this is simply crazy.

We have bright young minds right here, and they are eager to take on challenges.

We are given to understand that somehow, this great nation doesn’t have enough in the way of resources to prepare children for STEM careers. But instead of talking about real-world solutions, there is chiefly hand wringing about why we don’t have more tools to address the issue. This is also crazy. We have bright young minds right here, and they are eager to take on challenges.

Organizations like Girlstart are ready to take on that challenge. Our new research shows that Girlstart girls (more than 1,200 girls were included in this study) do better on their science and math tests in the spring of the 5th grade. And whatever one believes about standardized tests or the awfulness of teaching to the tests, look: if a girl does well on these tests, she will be commended to the advanced track in middle school. Middle school in Texas often starts in 6th grade. So if a girl presents herself at the door of middle school with strong test scores in science and math, she will be perceived as being “good at” science and math. This is simple stuff, but the multiplier effect is what is important. Through this research, we know that Girlstart girls take more of these advanced science and math courses in middle school than non-Girlstart participants, and that the number of advanced classes they take goes up over time, just as non-Girlstart girls take markedly fewer advanced science or math courses, and that number goes down over time.

Girlstart serves more than 1,500 girls in 19 Texas school districts. Photo courtesy of Girlstart

This matters because if a girl takes Algebra 1 in the 8th grade, she will enter high school ready to take on Calculus as a senior. She will not be placed in the “general population.” (My pain in first hearing that phrase applied to middle school was and remains significant, but it is unfortunately now a common phrase.) She will be placed among a cohort of highly achieving children. But if she does not take Algebra 1 in or prior to 8th grade (in addition to being placed with a cohort of children who may not be highly-performing), she will not have enough time to get the fundamentals of math completed in high school. So, we see very clearly that getting a girl ready for the Pre-Advanced Placement track at middle school is one way to dramatically impact a girl’s life and help her be STEM-ready as she considers a college major.

Because future college and career opportunities remain available for girls when they enter the Pre-AP track at middle school, this is a game changer. This is great news for Girlstart girls, since STEM careers are more highly compensated jobs, and nearly 63 percent of American families have a woman as sole or co-breadwinner. In previously released research, Girlstart girls post-participation, enrolled in STEM majors at four-year universities at very high rates, 87 percent. Because Girlstart has recently been able to scale up its programs to a statewide level, this proof of promise is now positively impacting more than 1,500 girls in 19 Texas school districts each year. And that number is expected to grow.

Girlstart After School is one of the largest and most robust out-of-school program of its type in the nation, reaching more girls and schools with intensive, free, high-quality STEM education, and, with this new research, this model is proven. There are 70-plus Texas school districts that want Girlstart—and districts in 28 states across America—but they sit on a wait list. Given resources, however, Girlstart is ready to grow. Girlstart can bring its model of high-quality STEM education programs to more girls across America, and make these opportunities available. Girlstart is ready to bring this best in class program to communities that are eager for high quality STEM programming. We at Girlstart are ready to shape our nation’s talent, and build a nation of future STEM workers who can take on the world’s leading challenges.

Tamara Hudgins

Executive Director of Girlstart

Tamara Hudgins is the executive director of Girlstart, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit. Her professional background is in nonprofit management and development. She received her doctoral degree in Art History at Charles University in Prague, and earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Art History from School of the Art Institute and Ohio State University, respectively.