Girl Scouts Louisiana East recently held its second annual STEM Extravaganza. The event is designed to get girls excited about science, technology, engineering and math — fields typically dominated by men. Girl Scouts from grades K-12 came to the event, held at Dillard University.
The STEM Extravaganza starts off with a morning pump up song. Girls stand in small groups. Some wear bright T-shirts with their troop numbers. They sway to the music and study a list of workshops, with titles like “protecting beach-nesting shorebirds” and “scratch programming basics.” Many of them have been awake for hours; they drove in from far-off parishes to meet with NASA engineers and watch robotics demonstrations.
Back in 2011, the US Department of Commerce released a discouraging study: women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce. Not long after, the Girl Scout Research Institute put out its own study. Only 13% of the girls surveyed listed a STEM field as their top career choice. Marianne Addy works with Girl Scouts Louisiana East. She hopes events like today's Extravaganza can help change these statistics.
"I hope that girls will realize that there is an opportunity for them to shine in these fields, that they can do anything that they choose to and just get an idea of this is something that they might be interested in doing as adults," says Addy.
The goal is to expose girls to STEM activities and introduce them to women in the field, so they don't just become excited about chemistry or coding but can actually imagine themselves as chemists or coders. In a session on computer programming, Dr. B from Busy Bee Computer Clinic encourages the girls to see themselves as programmers.
"Have y'all ever thought of yourself as a computer scientist?" she asks. "Have you ever thought that you might like to learn how to control a computer yourself? That's what we're gonna learn how to do today."
The girls sit at computers and pull up a free program called Scratch. An orange cartoon cat blinks onto their screens. The girls learn how to make the cat take a few steps forward and form a speech bubble. But the real excitement comes when they figure out how to make the cat meow.
In another session, a chemist for the Sewerage and Water Board demonstrates how water gets from the Mississippi River into people's homes. She explains how chemicals like chloride can make mucky river water safe for drinking. Nine-year-old Ariana Blagrove is fascinated by the process.
"The most exciting thing was seeing how water starts but how they make it turn into healthy, fresh water," she says.
The chemist also leads a taste test. The girls try four different kinds of water and vote for their favorite. They're surprised to learn that tap water is the clear winner.
Later in the day, Wendy Dolan teaches girls to build their own websites. Dolan founded the web design company Get Online NOLA. She says women in her field typically handle the graphic design work, while coding and programming are left to men. But she says this divide isn't about ability.
"Girls have the capacity for this, but then something happens socially around kind of pre-teen years that just drives them away. Drives them into more of the kind of humanities fields," Dolan says.
Dolan wants to show girls that they're capable of coding, and maybe even put a new spin on web design.
"You know it's not just techy," she says. "It's about making something. And I think, at least myself as young girl, I loved making things and I still do. So for me coding and making websites is almost crafty. Even though it's techy as well."
If Dolan hooks enough girls today, she might be looking at future employees a decade from now.