If you have never been in Girl Scouts of the USA, you may think the Scouts work on badges like cooking and sewing, or other gender-stereotyped activities. However, the Girl Scouts recently added some new badges and journeys that are expanding its STEM program. That’s right, not starting a STEM program, but expanding. Machine Design recently spoke with Hannah Gilbert, the STEM Program Coordinator of the Girls Scouts River Valleys in Minnesota, who educated us on how the Girl Scouts have always been about science and engineering and how they are engaging girls in STEM for the future.
Girl Scouts in the Daisy and Brownie age group can earn three badges each in mechanical engineering. Pictured here are some homemade catapults, but the GS has also partnered with Goldieblox to use kits to complete roller coasters and airplane challenges.
Tell us about yourself and what role you play in getting Girl Scouts (GS) into STEM.
Gilbert: I started working with the Girl Scouts a while ago as a program assistant. My role was to move around where I was needed the most based on what I was good at. Then, with the announcement of the new STEM badges, we decided to have an official coordinator. This new program has extended our version of STEM badges and journeys.
What’s a journey?
Gilbert: Journeys are more focused on taking a longer time to explore a topic. A journey requires the GS to take action by having the troop do some kind of project related to that topic. We’ve added three new STEM journeys that involve engineering, computer science, and citizen science.
We also have some new badges in mechanical engineering and robotics. The three new robotics badges are for the Daisy, Brownie, and Junior level—that’s kindergarten through fifth grade. Each level they can earn three robotic badges about designing, programming, and building. This builds on top of the STEM badges we already have.
In fact, one of our first badges in 1913 was the electrician badge, so this isn't new—we’re just making it more robust and further enriching our program. Previously we’ve had the badges like product design or inventor. At the GS River Valleys in particular, we’ve had a robotic program for the last 13 years. The exciting part about this new program is that we have partners. We’ve teamed with the Society of Women Engineers, Code.org, and SciStarter to create a really awesome experience for the GS.
At River Valleys, the staff-led robotics program is geared toward Junior-Cadette girls (grades 4 through 8). We use Lego Robotics (NXT and EV3s) to teach girls how to build, program, and showcase their robots. Using gears and pulley systems, girls build cars equipped with touch, light, and ultrasonic sensors. They also create towers that can lift an object and robots that can interact with each other or solve mazes.
What is the driving force behind this development?
Gilbert: I think it’s guided by the leadership. The CEO of GS USA is an actual rocket scientist, but also because of the disparities in STEM, it is easy for women and girls to feel like they don’t belong in these fields. Something that we’re really emphasizing is this idea of the STEM identity.
Research has shown that by the time a child is in second or third grade they have already decided if they do or do not like science. What we’re trying to do is reach that age group, and continue to offer opportunities going forward. The hope is that children at this age feel like STEM is a part of their identity. Whether they end up having a career in STEM or not, we don’t want them to feel like any doors are closed. In addition, we understand that the skills gained in learning about STEM transcends to any career.
What’s different about getting girls interested in STEM rather than boys?
Gilbert: That’s an interesting question, and there is a lot of research around this. First, an all-girl environment has a particularly positive impact on learning. Where there’s no chance that a boy can take over, the girls are more likely to gain confidence. This confidence follows them as they start to enter spaces that do have boys. The GS already has this model.
The other thing is the way we approach STEM. It is pretty open-ended. It is an exploratory process or computational thinking. We will give them a simple task and let them figure out their own way of solving the problem. It’s not a school model where we are holding their hands and telling them step-by-step instruction on how to do something. Our experience and research has shown that hands-on experiences with a challenge that doesn’t have one right answer really gets girls excited and engaged.
The third key factor, at least at River Valleys, is we try to make our programs meaningful in the girls’ lives. For girls, making an impact in the world and making things better really motivates them to learn. So the three key factors to engage girls in STEM are: an all-girl environment, hands-on exploratory programs, and applying it in the real world.
Journeys and badges for Girl Scouts at the Cadette, Senior, and Ambassador level (grades 6-12) are currently in development and will be released next year. In the meantime, Girl Scouts River Valleys offers older-girl programs in robotics, construction engineering (in partnership with Dunwoody College of Technology), website design, health sciences, and more.
What are the resources the GS has to work with?
Gilbert: It varies, but GS USA encourages troop leaders to do these activities even if they don’t have any experience. There are many ways to accomplish the STEM activities, but the resources will depend on the troops. Generally, it’s kind of a Popsicle stick-and-rubber-band sort of innovation in an analog way with what is available around them.
At the council level we try to elevate this and get tools into the hands of the girls. We have a camp called Rosie’s Girls at Dunwoody College that gives the girls access to welding equipment. In our robotics program we have Lego NXT robots.
Organizations and programs such as the GS USA will hopefully encourage more girls and women to not only enter the field, but to have the confidence to stand up and be heard. In a country where woman are the strongest consumer group, it is predominantly males designing the products for them. Diversity in engineering might be the key to unlocking a company’s success.