When it comes to adolescence in America, the Girl Scouts organization has been a popular fixture for more than a century. But, if you think it’s only about first aid, community service and those irresistible cookie sales, you need to think again.
In recent years, the organization has made a concerted effort to include more science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum into its activities and badges.
“It’s definitely an intentional focus, and it’s ramping up,” Mackenzie Grondahl says.
Grondahl works as the regional manager of Northeast Wisconsin for TEALS, an organization that helps high schools build and grow computer science programs for their students. Additionally, Grondahl serves as an assistant troop leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop and works heavily with the STEM-related badging.
Many attribute the Girl Scouts’ new approach to CEO Sylvia Acevedo, a champion of incorporating more STEM-related education.
“Sylvia Acevedo came from NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, so we have a literal rocket scientist leading us right now,” Grondahl says. “To have someone who understands what it means to be a woman in a scientific field and want to impart that is very exciting.”
Beyond Girl Scouts leadership, there’s a bigger force at play: a growing demand for STEM talent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the academic sector is generally oversupplied, the government sector and private industry continue to experience severe shortages of STEM workers to meet the demands of the labor market.
“Technology is creating new opportunities across nearly every industry, and that is causing a surge in demand for tech skills,” says Michelle Schuler, TechSpark Wisconsin manager at Microsoft. “In Northeast Wisconsin, agriculture and manufacturing require elements of computer or technology skills. Across the country, approximately 500,000 computer science jobs in different industries are currently unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the right skills to fill those jobs.”
Further, there’s a diversity problem. The talent pool that does exist for STEM jobs is made up of mostly men. The Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey reported that women comprise only 24 percent of STEM workers.
It’s statistics like those that inspired female-focused organizations, including the Girl Scouts, to step up and act to encourage an interest in the STEM field at an early age.
Grondahl’s troop has already participated in numerous activities related to mechanical engineering, robotics and the scientific method. They’ve looked under the hood of a stock car, participated in a water rocket propulsion experiment, controlled a robot and then prototyped their own, and designed their own experiments, discovering the importance of collecting data.
“At the end, the girls now have a better understanding of what it means to think scientifically,” Grondahl says. “Are they going to be scientists? Maybe, or maybe not. But, the chances of them entering into a lifelong relationship with critical thinking and creativity are high, because they’ve been exposed to it in a safe environment with other girls and have done so in a way that they could fail and have very few consequences.”
Schuler agrees that exposure to these types of projects can make a significant impact, which is why Microsoft offers several curricula that meet Girl Scout badge requirements. Microsoft’s free workshops are offered at Microsoft stores and provide educational and interactive opportunities for girls to learn tech skills. A few of their most popular workshops include “Computer Expert” and “Programming Robots.”
“We want to shatter the stereotypes about who belongs in tech careers,” Schuler says. “We believe anyone can work in tech. Exposure to technology and computer science at a young age, especially for girls, can help build their confidence and interest in pursuing STEM careers.”
The Girl Scouts — along with other organizations such as Girls Who Code, Microsoft’s DigiGirlz and Women in Technology — have made significant strides in increasing awareness and interest in the STEM field among girls and women. And adding more voices into a notoriously male-dominated field brings more benefits than just closing the gender gap.
“If you only have linear thinking, which men excel at, you’ll have a lot of talent in terms of programming. But that’s what makes women, who tend to think circuitously, so good at breaking them,” Grondahl says.
She compares it to early seatbelts, which proved to be deadly because they were designed only for men of a certain size and then never tested on anyone else.
“It’s something that, as a business community, we’re really starting to appreciate. The more voices, the better,” Grondahl says. “We get that now, and that’s why we’re trying to make up the difference. We have years to unteach, and we’re going to get there.”