Founded in 1994, Science Club for Girls (SCFG) provides “girls-specific programming by connecting girls in K-12 grades, especially those from underrepresented groups, with female mentor-scientists through free science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs in a fun, nurturing, interactive environment.” Their programs for kids are designed to develop scientific reasoning skills and promote teamwork. Leadership programs designed for teens provide the “opportunity to be role models, teach young children science, learn life skills, conduct science research in applied settings, and explore careers in science and technology.” This fiscal year, SCFG is serving 1,400 participating girls. TPC member Sadya Zelaya spoke with SCFG’s Executive Director Lonsdale Koester to learn more about this grantee.
Q: Tell us about the need that is met by SCFG.
The gender, race, and income gap in STEM continues to be a very challenging problem, even though it was identified years ago. One would think that with as much attention that has been given to this issue in the last 20 years that gap wouldn’t still be as large, but it is. So SCFG has a lot of work to do to improve attitudes and women’s perception of their place in the world.
The challenge is that there are so many issues within STEM that need to be identified. These issues begin in primary school, persist throughout adolescence, and continue right to workplace bias for adult women. This is why SCFG is focused on working earlier in the pipeline. Getting young girls excited about STEM is great. They need to understand that STEM is not just for boys and that there are so many things girls can do by learning STEM-related skills. We then need to support sustaining that excitement as they grow up and consider careers.
Generally, girls learn differently than boys do. Girls are more collaborative and deliberative. In a classroom, boys tend to raise their hands more even if they don’t know the answer. Girls will most likely think through the question before rushing to raise their hands, and are more afraid to look foolish if they don’t get the answer right. Girls also do best in a setting where learning is framed as solving a problem. That’s why we design our programs in a way that is supportive, hands-on, inclusive, and where failure is actually encouraged. Failure is an opportunity born! It’s also important to know that even if girls don’t pursue STEM careers, the fact they are learning the scientific method and learning how to take on challenges will serve them well in their personal and professional lives.
Q: What makes you get up every day and do this work?
The girls we serve are girls of color, many from low-income backgrounds, and they attend schools that don’t offer many options or advanced placement classes. Our girls don’t have access to the opportunities that other girls in the surrounding and more affluent school districts have. That gap and access to opportunity bothers me so much. The programs that SCFG provides strive to fill in that gap, and our clubs are an opportunity to give them access to these resources. We take the girls to labs and STEM-specific facilities to show them the opportunities and resources that are available.
We also provide mentorship because it’s so important to see yourself in someone else who has paved the way, and equally important that our volunteers see the value in the girls they mentor. The mentor relationship is fundamental to what we do. Girls need to feel like they have a place where they don’t feel alone and where they’re encouraged by mentors who understand them and value them.
Q: Tell us about what TPC’s grant is funding.
TPC’s generous grant is funding our STEMinistas program. This program was specifically developed for our middle school girls. Middle school is a critical developmental time in a girl’s life. They need very specific things at that age. Girls’ self-confidence begins to decrease at age nine! We recognized this need and wanted to create a program specifically for middle school girls. So in the school year of 2015-2016 STEMinistas was born.
The program started as a mix of advanced 5th grade content mixed with teenage-focused activities. Then an Americorps volunteer got on board with SCFG and built out the STEMinistas curriculum, which was great, but we needed someone full-time. This is why TPC’s grant has been so helpful – it has allowed us to bring someone on full-time and run the program. A sliver of the grant is also helping to expand STEMinistas into this coming summer.
Q: Tell us about a moment with SCFG that you are extremely proud of.
We have a program at Mother Carolina Academy in Dorchester and we had brought a black female engineer from Procter and Gamble to speak to the students. That day we started the program by asking the girls a question: Why are there so few women of color in STEM? When we told them the extremely low percentage of women of color in STEM, the girls were up in arms. They asked, “How is that possible?” and “Why is this happening?” And then they saw the presenter, who was a woman of color, who was in STEM and something clicked; they became hopeful. The low numbers became a challenge, rather than a reason to be discouraged. They began to tell the presenter that she had broken the mold and that if she could do it, they could too. They connected the dots and that’s exactly what SCFG is helping to accomplish.
Q: With the new administration coming in this month, is there anything that concerns you in regards to the SCFG mission?
My professional background is in politics and government and, the way I see it, our work is more important than it has ever been. Given the current political and social discourse in the US, along with the anger and frustration, it’s so important for girls to know that they are seen and valued – that they are cared for, that they are loved, and, most important, that their futures matter and their contributions matter. Right after the election it was tough for a lot of our girls, so our work in creating sisterhood and supportive mentoring relationships has been particularly important.
Q: What do you hope to get out of your relationship with TPC? How could TPC members get more involved?
SCFG is all about sisterhood and empowering girls and women, and TPC is a champion of these values. It’s energizing to be a part of that. TPC provides us with the funds to keep our mission running, but it also provides us with support and energy and those resources are just as important.
I would like to engage more members in TPC to be a part of SCFG. That said, we have openings for club mentors who don’t necessarily need to be TPC members, but we’d welcome introductions to STEM-focused women TPC members know. TPC has such a large network of women who are having those conversations and have access to those resources that we’d love to tap into. We’d also love to add women to our Board to help us keep this flame alive.