Editor's Note: This post is part of HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the conversation here or on Twitter (#hpSTEM) as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
Check out the live blog of the Techbridge Girls Summer Academy, Girls Go Global, here from June 24 to June 28 to see the next generation of female engineers use their creative abilities and talents to create solutions to some of the world's biggest challenges.
Three girls focus intently on the object in front of them--a biomass-burning stove made from recycled cans and foil. Their challenge: to design a stove that heats water in a small pot. "What if we add more holes at the bottom to increase the airflow?" "What if we lower the pot so it's closer to the flames?" The girls puzzle out their ideas, making sketches and tweaking the stove's design.
How many girls are spending their summer vacation designing stoves? At this year's Techbridge Summer Academy, Girls Go Global, 50 girls took on the role of engineers working on problems around the world. Activities like building a stove give girls a chance to practice the engineering design process, learn how engineering helps improve lives around the world, and ignites interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Techbridge girls learned about challenges people in developing nations may face meeting daily needs related to water, sanitation, energy, and food. From role models they heard about solutions being created by people across the globe.
Best of all, girls got to design, build, and test their solutions to these problems. For example, they learned about challenges of lighting a home without electricity and reverse-engineered a d.light, a solar-powered light designed for use in developing nations. Nearly four million children benefit from this technology. Once they understood the need and the possibilities, the girls jumped into the design process, designing, building, and testing an LED light of their own. The weeklong experience gave girls the opportunity to engage in engineering practices laid out in the Next Generation Science Standards' Engineering Design standards, such as evaluating different design solutions.
Girl Scouts Generation STEM, the nationwide survey of teen girls conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute, found that "Girls want a career that they love and want to help people and make a difference in the world." Girls (74% of those surveyed) are interested in STEM fields, but few consider it their number one career choice. It's up to us to sell girls on the idea that careers in STEM can be engaging, exciting, and make a difference around the world.
Kids learn about careers from people in their lives and characters in the media. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of engineers or computer scientists in the lives of most. The story lines of favorite TV shows may reinforce stereotypes. For too many girls, their mental image of a scientist is a nerdy guy in a lab coat, toiling away in a windowless room. The reality, one we need to share with girls, is that scientists and engineers can look just like them, and are at the forefront of solving today's most challenging problems.
There are a number of programs taking innovative approaches to introduce girls to engineering and technology. Each has its own focus, but all have program elements in common: topics relevant to girls' interests, opportunities to engage in science and engineering the way they're really practiced, and connection to role models.
Iridescent is sparking girls' interest in technology careers with The Technovation Challenge, which has gone international. For the 2013 Challenge, girls developed an app that solves a problem in their local community--such as a health problem, a social concern, or a lack of resources. One team of finalists from Brazil created Solidárie, an app that connects people to nonprofit and charity organizations in need of donations or volunteers. Through the app's social features anyone can post pictures and share volunteer experiences, creating a bond between volunteers and institutions and stimulating greater volunteerism. Over the past three years the Technovation Challenge has supported over 1,300 high-school girls who have not only learned how to program apps and but also how to launch a startup company. Program evaluation results show that the Technovation Challenge is changing the way girls think about their future: 94% of the girls are now interested in a career in technology.
Engineering is made relevant and fun by Design Squad Nation, the PBS show where Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer travel the world "showing kids that if they can dream it, they can build it." Projects are real and so are the kids who work on them. For example, children of Cusmapa, Nicaragua, built the community's first playground. The stories on the show are paired with activities kids can do at home that demonstrate engineering and science principles. Judy is an inspiring role model for girls (and boys). Her personal dreams took her to Kenya to help bring clean water to villages. Judy has a passion for engineering that she communicates through her genuine enthusiasm. She offers a counterexample to stereotypical engineers or scientists girls may see in the media, and proves that engineering can be fun AND make a difference in people's lives.
It's the messaging of role models like Judy Lee that can help draw kids into engineering and technology. The National Academy of Engineering conducted research to better understand how to connect today's youth to engineering. The messages that make a difference: engineers are creative problem-solvers, engineers make a world of difference, and engineers help shape the future.
You can make a difference and support girls' dreams for a future in STEM. As a parent, teacher, or supportive adult, take on one of the following calls to action: seek out positive role models (or be the role model for a girl); look for positive STEM images in the media and question stereotypes about STEM; engage in activities that make technology and engineering fun and relevant; and support kids to get involved in a real-world issue in their school or neighborhood.
Linda Kekelis, PhD, is Executive Director of Techbridge. When she was thinking about her future, Linda had two dreams based on the role models around her--to be a teacher or a mother. In Techbridge, Linda encourages the significant others in the lives of girls to promote STEM career options.
Emily McLeod is the Curriculum Development Specialist at Techbridge.
To learn more about Techbridge, visit techbridgegirls.org.