Group encourages pursuit of science, math

At Girlstart, girls are encouraged to be girly and geeky at the same time.

The organization's brightly painted facility in Austin has supplies to introduce girls to a variety of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, applications.

"Technology is very much geared to men," Girlstart Deputy Director Julie Shannan said. "You look at the colors of computers, and they're very gray and black. When Girlstart came on the scene, we put the sparkle in STEM."

Girlstart opened in 1997, and today it brings STEM training to almost 12,000 girls a year through its after-school and summer camp programs, where girls can learn about and experiment with robotics, 3-D model building, video game design, astronomy and more.

The nonprofit hosts after-school programs in 40 campuses, including Hemphill and Pfluger elementary schools in Hays CISD. At Hemphill Elementary, Principal Paige Collier said Girlstart sponsors are "wonderful role models" who encourage students who might not have otherwise been attracted to STEM disciplines.

"We definitely want to bring the experience of science, technology, engineering and math to our girls," she said. "We want to make sure they have an open door to their future in these career fields."

In addition to long-term career prospects, Collier said the program has had a more immediate effect on girls by encouraging them to participate in their regular science classrooms.

"They are able to be leaders for the rest of the class, because they can bring prior knowledge from experiments they did in the [after-school] club," Collier said. "They do cool, innovative things."

On May 9, Girlstart held a Starry Extravaganza for girls and their families to explore the science of the sky at Pfluger Elementary, and the group is hosting a day camp at Hemphill in late June.

Girlstart is also expanding its reach in Hays CISD. In the 2013–14 academic year, Collier said she plans to bring the program to Tobias Elementary School, where she is being reassigned by the district.

One of the goals of the program is to help equalize the disproportion of males to females in STEM fields. A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration found a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping, among other things, to be possible causes for the disparity.

"Many girls lose interest in STEM around third grade," Girlstart Executive Director Tamara Hudgins said. "We provide girls with a place where it's OK to have fun and do science."

Girlstart also offers STEM Saturdays, which are free, hands-on learning experiences for first- through eighth-grade girls meant to introduce them to the fun side of math and science pursuits.

"Our goal is to filter the program to other communities as necessary," Hudgins said. "We're deeply committed to Central Texas and heavily funded by individuals and businesses here. We have a lot more to do here before we worry about going to other places."

Girlstart, 1400 W. Anderson Lane, Austin, 512-916-4775,