From Canning Food to Cybersecurity: Girl Scouting for a STEM Age

By Anne Miller, Contributor

Diana Canna didn’t consider a STEM career.

“I don’t remember it being on my radar enough to be discouraged—much less be encouraged—to go into any science or engineering-type field,” she says.

Today, the mom of two is a university librarian who co-leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She’s taken the gaggle of 7- and 8-year-olds to Chicago’s Field Museum for a sleepover event, and to a local coding academy for an hour lesson where the girls used code to turn the room lights down and speaker music up.

Such projects are part of a push by the organization to encourage STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) among girls.

There are now 70 STEM badges, which—like all badges—can be earned by completing certain skill-based tasks. Those steps, however, can be open to interpretation, encouraging girls to create projects they find interesting and engaging. Leaders from Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) have found that such self-driven, project-based learning dovetails well with encouraging STEM involvement.

This summer, the organization is rolling out new Coding for Good badges funded in part by Dell Technologies, which offer ways to earn STEM-based badges both by using technology and stepping away from screens to engage in real-world concepts.

Upping the Odds

Founded in 1912, GSUSA is synonymous with cookie sales and camp outs. But if the goal of the organization is to develop the future female leaders of tomorrow, STEM must become a field of focus. Despite many private and public programs throughout the country, however, there’s still a big fall-off among girls when it comes to these subjects.

The GSUSA have long conducted studies about girls, those who are Scouts and those who are not. Girls who aren’t Scouts show a sharp drop-off in interest when it comes to STEM by high school; for example, some 59 percent of girls are interested in tech careers from ages 5 to 7, but that drops to 31 percent when they reach ages 14-17. Teens who are Girl Scouts, however, retain that 59 percent interest, which the Scout leaders say is evidence of their programming strength—and why it’s so vital.

“They are sort of reading all of these subtle and not-so-subtle signs around them that STEM is not for them.”

—Andrea Bastiani Archibald, PhD, developmental psychologist and chief girl and family engagement officer, GSUS

“They are sort of reading all of these subtle and not-so-subtle signs around them that STEM is not for them,” says Andrea Bastiani Archibald, PhD, a developmental psychologist and the chief girl and family engagement officer for GSUS. For example, she notes, if a classroom has posters that feature male scientists, the female students may get the impression science isn’t for them.

The Girl Scouts are bucking that trend.

A new GSUSA report released in July shows that 60 percent of Girl Scouts participate in STEM-related activities versus 35 percent of girls in the general population. From fiscal year 2017-18, reporting shows girls earning STEM-related badges up 64 percent.

Research from GSUSA and other sources reveal that girls use technology to connect and collaborate more than boys. The GSUSA is designing advanced badges to capitalize on this finding. To earn these badges, girls might devise a game aimed at educating players about an issue they care about, or create an algorithm to spread a message about a charity they support, according to a press release.

The GSUSA sees STEM badges as a way to support the leadership skills the next generation of women will need. Initial data shows the plan may be working.

“If a girl says in elementary school, ‘I’m not a STEM girl,’ it’s really hard to re-engage her,” says Suzanne Harper, the senior director of national STEM strategy for the GSUSA. “What we really want to do is say to girls, ‘Look, you had fun, and you learned something about computer programming, and you should feel really proud.'”

“If you have fun doing something that’s called computer programming, then you’re not intimidated by it.”

—Suzanne Harper, senior director of national STEM strategy, GSUSA

“It takes away the fear factor,” Harper continues. “If you have fun doing something that’s called computer programming, then you’re not intimidated by it.”

Canna, the Illinois troop leader, agrees.

“It’s nice, I think, to see that it’s being expected,” she says. “If a girl wants to work in programming, it’s there for her, without question, which is great.”

Four Points of Focus

The Girl Scouts STEM program is focused on four outcomes, explains Harper:

– Increased interest in STEM
– Increased confidence in STEM
– Increased competence in STEM
– Understanding the value of STEM to people in society

“The reason for the last one is because research shows girls are more interested in STEM when they see how it can be used to help others,” she says. “STEM is not always taught that way—that is one of the things that we weave throughout the program.”

For older Girl Scouts, one of the new cybersecurity badges involves tracking their own online footprint and learning where any vulnerabilities lie. “They inventory their own cyber hygiene practices and learn how to cultivate healthy online habits throughout their life,” the badge description reads.

A badge for the junior high school set involves creating their own avatars using JavaScript. But weaving lessons through the badges isn’t always easy, and the scout leaders faced obstacles that a classroom teacher might not in order to create badges accessible to all girls.

Some troops in low-income areas may not have reliable access to computers or the internet; for others, transit and meeting space offers limitation. Troop leaders are volunteers—often parents—and for many, Fortran sounds like a word from a foreign language.

But STEM isn’t all about sitting in front of a machine. Game designers, Harper notes, use pen and paper to work out plots and characters first; engineers create prototypes. Harper recalls two girls who were so invested in making a rain catchment system with cardboard that they turned down ice cream in order to continue working.

Trail Mix and Math

Every activity is piloted with girls and their troop leaders before rolling out nationally.

For example, in one project Harper recalls, the girls learned about judging the efficiency of algorithms by making trail mix. They made the mix step-by-step, and considered what they could do to make the process more efficient. While sorting snack bits may seem a far step from checking code, there’s a direct link between the higher-level thought processes involved in created discrete steps and analyzing the outcome.

“We were able to make it active, creative, and Girl Scout-y,” Harper says. “We spent a lot of time considering what goes into the trail mix—no peanuts, I remember that.”

To give another example, in order to work through conditionals—if/then statements that power the directions coders give and are used often in math work—the Girl Scouts created the “Iffy Dance.”

“If I say this, then you do that—learning about conditionals, but getting up on their feet as they were doing [it],” Harper says.

Archibald sees a direct link between the new badges and the tech leaders of the future.

“Women problem-solve differently. They may have a different idea about the app some team is developing,” she says. “We know when girls and women are around the problem solving table, the solutions they develop are more likely to be relevant to a wider and more diverse audience.”

“I’d love to see how Girl Scouts has altered the landscape of STEM in coming years,” she adds.