At 3:15 p.m., the hallways of Pickett Elementary School in Georgetown are almost empty. Most students have already boarded their buses or are waiting for their parents to pick them up.
But the science lab is anything but quiet. Shouts of “Girlstart! Girlstart! Girlstart!” can be heard from the main office. Those shouting are 25 4th and 5th grade girls, and one Southwestern University student, Lorin Froetschel.
Froetschel is an education major at Southwestern, and, as of last spring, a member of the STEM CREW (Creative, Resourceful, Empowered Women) for the Austin-based nonprofit Girlstart. STEM CREW members help Girlstart teach weekly free workshops at elementary schools across Texas. Froetschel was hired by Girlstart after fellow Southwestern education major Nancy Juarez recommended the program to her.
At the beginning of a recent workshop at Pickett, Froetschel distributed a survey asking the girls, among other things, what they thought STEM stood for. “Science, technology, engineering and math” was the correct answer, and getting young women interested in these fields is Girlstart’s goal.
“Our mission is to empower and equip girls in STEM, because one in seven engineers in America is female. Although girls and women earn half the bachelor’s degrees in America, fewer than 25 percent of STEM professionals are women,” Girlstart Executive Director Tamara Hudgins said.
Since Hudgins began working at Girlstart in 2009, the organization has gone from reaching roughly 1,500 girls a year through their after-school, summer-camp, and weekend programs to reaching more than 13,000. The after-school program alone is taking place in more than 30 schools in the central Texas area, including five in Georgetown.
For Girlstart, empowering and equipping girls in STEM means getting them excited about those areas, equipping them with basic skills and knowledge, and linking STEM activities to potential careers.
Froetschel had her students divide into groups. Each group was given a ruler, and the girls were asked to measure the width of each others’ smiles in centimeters. They recorded their results, determined the mean smile width for each group, and once the giggling subsided, Froetschel asked them to graph their findings on the whiteboard and compare averages. Afterward, Froetschel asked them to think of jobs in which measuring could be useful. The girls answered “scientist,” “doctor” and “engineer,” and to that list Froetschel added “mathematician.”
“Last semester we gave them different materials and they had to try to soundproof a box, they made a car out of cardboard wheels and designed a package to keep its contents safe. The previous year we did more with earth and sand, and they learned about erosion,” Froetschel said.
Girlstart after-school is completely voluntary for students, and the program’s popularity is proved by the number of girls in the room. Girlstart develops their curriculum in house, although they ask STEM CREW Members to contribute to lesson plans as well.
“Girls are continually pushing us to do more and do more new things. They don’t want to do the same thing, so we continually develop new curriculum,” Hudgins said.
Although Girlstart works to empower girls specifically, the results of doing so can be beneficial for all. Increasing the number of women in STEM career fields increases the number of STEM professionals in America, which provides the country with more innovative thinkers capable of solving environmental, technological and medical problems.
“We can turn this into a gender-based or equity-based conversation, but, speaking from a simple economic argument, if we as a country are able to educate more engineers and STEM professionals, we are going to be stronger,” Hudgins said. “We need more people, regardless of gender, to be coming up with the new innovations, the new app, the new biomedical development. If half of your population is disconnecting from this very rich area, then you have fewer practitioners who are able to solve the world’s global challenges.”
In the future, Girlstart hopes to conduct a longitudinal study to numerically measure the effectiveness of its program. So far, they’ve found that Girlstart girls, based on a small data sample, do 8 percent better on the science portion of their Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test.
Froetschel, Juarez and other Southwestern students run Girlstart’s after-school programs in Georgetown, and both Froetschel and Juarez have found the program invaluable to their career goals post-graduation. Both plan to teach elementary school, and few part-time jobs could have prepared them better for their future in education than Girlstart.
“Teaching these hands-on activities in science, technology, math and engineering has helped me become more comfortable teaching these subjects in the classroom,” Juarez said.
Girlstart relies on pre-service teachers like Froetschel and Juarez, and other STEM savvy, kid-friendly college students to run their after-school programs throughout the state.
“If we could find more education majors who would be willing to even deliver one club, that would help us so much,” Hudgins said. “We aim to be in as many high-need schools as we can in Georgetown and surrounding areas, and our ability to respond to that is directly related to how many STEM CREW Members we can recruit from Southwestern and other higher education institutions.”
CREW Members are paid, and compensated for travel expenses if need be. Hudgins also noted that the CREW Member hours are flexible. If a student is only available after school on one day a week, Girlstart will work with them to facilitate their schedule. The relationship between pre-service teachers and Girlstart is mutually beneficial − college students gain teaching experience, and girls gain both a mentor and a role model.
“We love our STEM CREW Members as role models, because they don’t appear like teachers to the girls in our after-school club. They appear, essentially, like older sisters,” Hudgins said. “But the great thing is, more than 55 percent of the girls in our after-school program would be first-generation college students, and because members of the STEM CREW are college students, they might think, ‘Oh, well I could be in college. She’s in college.’”
When asked, 97 percent of girls in Girlstart after-school programs reported that they want to go to college, and it’s this enthusiasm and ambition that Girlstart hopes to encourage.
“It’s just rewarding every time I come in, because sometimes I think ‘Oh, I’m kind of tired,’ but seeing them excited about the activities − that’s what keeps me going, knowing that they love Girlstart so much,” Froetschel said. “It helps me stay motivated every week to teach them.”
Froetschel, Juarez and others will graduate this May, leaving several openings in the Georgetown Girlstart after-school program, and Hudgins hopes that a new group of female students from Southwestern will fill their shoes.
“We love our partnership with Southwestern,” Hudgins said. “Our STEM CREW members are really the lifeblood of our program, so the more we can recruit the better.”
Hudgins hopes to deepen Girlstart’s relationship with Southwestern, and in doing so continue to serve the Georgetown community with workshops like the one at Pickett, where 25 to 30 girls show up every week, excited and willing to learn.
“We want to empower girls,” Hudgins said. “We are a girl-centered organization, we value the experience of girls and we believe that girls have something to say with regard to how the future can be shaped.”
Girlstart has partnered with Southwestern students to teach girls that no career is off limits, and Hudgins hopes that this partnership can continue to grow and provide even more girls with access to their after-school programs.
“I love that Girlstart is free for any girl wanting to learn,” Juarez said. “I wish I had discovered the program when I was in elementary school.”
− Elizabeth Stewart