Changing Girls’ Lives through STEM Education

Imagine what the future might look like if you are a girl attending a school with limited access to rigorous math and science courses, enrichment programs that expose you to new possibilities, and a support system that encourages dreams and aspirations. Would you know and believe you had the ability to achieve the economic promise of a future career in the science and technology fields? Would this vision of your future be different if you were exposed to STEM careers or had a parent working in Silicon Valley?

Twenty years ago, the newly-established Techbridge Girls sought to find the answer. They looked at two schools in East-Oakland and San Ramon, California. In each classroom, they asked the girls to list all the engineering professions they knew. In the San Ramon classroom, the girls rattled off a variety of STEM careers in rapid succession, so many that they could barely fit them on the oversized sheet of paper. In the East-Oakland classroom, the girls struggled to come up with five examples.

STEM is a vehicle that can change the destination of a girl’s life. Across the United States, STEM skills and careers are in high demand and will continue to grow. Nearly 80 percent of all new jobs created over the next decade will require these skill sets. Yet, compared to peers from middle- or high-income neighborhoods, girls from low-income communities will have far fewer opportunities to prepare for and launch into a STEM career.

Girls of color are disproportionately affected, because nationwide about three-quarters of both African American and Hispanic young people—compared to about one-third of white students—attend schools in high-poverty areas. Girls from these backgrounds are able and possess great potential in this field. However, they’re starting on an uneven playing field.

Today, too many girls are locked out of STEM and have to work twice as hard to get half as far. They live in under-resourced communities, attend high-poverty schools, and experience bias due to their race, gender, class, and ethnicity.

Today, too many girls are locked out of STEM and have to work twice as hard to get half as far. They live in under-resourced communities, attend high-poverty schools, and experience bias due to their race, gender, class, and ethnicity.

A Solution: Access to High-Quality, Equitable STEM Enrichment Programs
To help girls from low-income communities climb the ladder to economic success, substantial evidence points to the effectiveness of after-school STEM programs. A 2016 study supported by STEMNext and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation shows that more than 70 percent of students participating in STEM-focused after-school programs report increased interest in STEM careers, science, science identity, and 21st-century skills. National Science Foundation-funded research by Techbridge Girls has also shown the importance of gender-responsive and culturally-responsive programming to address gender biases, stereotypes, and other factors that reduce girls’ participation in STEM from elementary school through high school.

Revolutionizing STEM for Girls from Marginalized Communities
Techbridge Girls launched in 2000 in Oakland, California when a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) established one of the first organizations to focus on introducing girls from economically disadvantaged communities to STEM fields. Now, with more than 19 years of learning, expansion, and positive outcomes, the organization serves over 70,000 youth and hundreds of educators across the country through its STEM after-school programs and professional development partnerships with groups like Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Society of Women Engineers, and others.

What Does Success Look Like?
Results from 2017 through 2018 indicate that Techbridge Girls is making a significant impact. For example, 96 percent of girls in the program said they believe that engineering is a good career for women, 98 percent of parents said that the program has increased their daughter’s confidence in STEM, and 100 percent of teachers said students increased their understanding of how to prepare for careers in STEM. According to a longitudinal study conducted with the Oakland Unified School District in California, Techbridge Girls participants are more likely to exhibit increased confidence, improved academic performance, and a greater tendency to pursue STEM college majors and careers.

The organization witnesses this success in students like Aileen Iniguez, who participated in an after-school STEM program while attending a middle school in East Oakland, California. Her school placed in the bottom 50 percent of all California schools for overall test scores in 2015–16. Most of her classmates were from low income backgrounds, with 96 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, compared to 59 percent statewide.

In May 2017, Aileen graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Applied Mathematics. “The important thing is that Techbridge understands that the problem is there and they are making a difference. I always tell people that Techbridge is why I’m into STEM. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it.” By staying connected to the support network and mentorship from role models, she joined one of Techbridge Girl’s leading partners, Chevron, as an IT business analyst in February 2018.

I always tell people that Techbridge is why I’m into STEM. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it.

The Path toward One Million Girls
The organization is leveling the playing field, striving to empower thousands more girls from low-income communities. In 2019 there has been a dramatic expansion in its reach and ability to engage STEM professionals as volunteers through a collaboration with the Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYHN), one of the oldest national girl-serving STEM enrichment organizations in the United States. EYHN ignites STEM interest in over 25,000 girls each year through 100 conferences in 43 states and four other countries (UK, Switzerland, Japan, and Italy). Known as the preeminent source for resources and engagement of middle and high school girls from all STEM backgrounds, EYHN’s unique nationwide network of STEM conferences enables girls to see themselves as future participants in STEM educational and careers. This new partnership will accelerate Techbridge Girls toward its goal of connecting one million girls to STEM experiences by 2030.  

Cross-sector Partnerships
To power this work, STEM educators rely on donations, grants, and volunteerism from public agencies, individuals, foundations, and corporations, including corporations like Chevron, Samsung, AT&T, and the Science Sandbox initiative of Simons Foundation. National Science Foundation support made it possible for Techbridge Girls to create a guide for STEM Out-of-School-Time educators called the Essential Elements, which shares the findings from their work to scale-up after-school programs over the last five years. Also funded by the NSF, Techbridge Girls gained a deeper understanding of the socio-economic barriers and the interventions that work for girls at each level of their development.

Corporate funding partners provide financial support and encourage their employees to serve as hosts for field trips and volunteer as classroom role models. As an example, volunteers like Robbie Dela Cruz, a mechanical engineer, encourage girls to discover the wonders of STEM but also to inspire other women in STEM fields to volunteer their time and share their personal stories and experiences. Robbie served as a role model every week for a month and volunteered at Techbridge Girls’ annual culminating event, the “Spring Showcase.”

Robbie said she chose to get involved because she “didn’t personally know women engineers” while she was growing up. She wanted young girls “to see firsthand” that women scientists do exist. “Techbridge Girls understands that excitement for STEM is not enough to succeed in these fields. They take it a step further and provide their students with the resources to cultivate that interest, and I couldn’t resist being a part of that mission.” said Robbie.


About Techbridge Girls
More girls can achieve the economic promise of pursuing a STEM career when equipped with the resources to acquire the STEM knowledge, skills, and confidence to navigate their STEM future. By connecting them to supportive adults and fostering a public willingness to support their STEM aspirations, girls from low-income communities have the opportunity to achieve the economic promise that comes from a quality STEM education. The combination of increasing girls’ access to high-quality STEM education;  ensuring that educators are delivering equitable STEM experiences for girls; supporting positive influences and encouraging their path toward STEM success; and enabling them to see their voices and stories reflected in the national conversation change the equation. These partnerships and volunteers help to drive economic mobility and offer better life chances for the girls from low income communities. They create opportunities for girls who would otherwise not have them and open doors that were previously shut to them. The economy, society, culture and country stand to benefit. It is these girls, the nation’s next generation of leaders, who will bring critical diversity to the STEM fields and be among the top inventors and innovators of the future.

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