Nonprofit encourages girls to pursue STEM

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, mostly in Central Texas, through its after-school and summer camp programs in which 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 schools, including 11 at Austin ISD, five at Pflugerville ISD and two at Round Rock ISD.

"GirlStart has empowered girls throughout AISD through fun, engaging, learning opportunities and has ignited a spark in STEM around our communities," said Nayelli Ramos, a second-grade dual-language teacher at Ortega Elementary School.

One of the goals of the program is to help equalize the disproportion of males to females in STEM fields such as engineering. A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration found a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping, among other reasons, 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.

Girlstart To Go is responsible for bringing summer camps to girls outside of Texas, although Central Texas remains the program's focus.

"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 completed construction on a miniature planetarium at its headquarters May 30.

The nonprofit already operates a portable planetarium for its after-school and travel programs, but Hudgins said the new facility is a "fun vehicle for girls to learn STEM."