Start with the Girl

A Conversation with Crystal Polak of Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast about how to get more girls engaged in STEM

Girl Scouts at a FIRST LEGO League robotics tournament

Even though 74% of teen girls are interested in science, engineering, math, and technology (STEM) fields in high school, women hold only a quarter of the jobs in STEM. This means that women are missing out on high paying jobs, and the world is missing out on the talent, intelligence, and unique perspectives women bring to the table.

The good news is that by exposing girls to STEM opportunities and fostering their natural curiosity, interest in problem-solving, and work ethic, we can close this gender gap.

We spoke with Crystal Polak, Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast (GSWISE) Girl Experience Manager, to learn more about how to get girls engaged in STEM.

What types of STEM programs does Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast offer?

Crystal: One of Girl Scouts’ top focus areas is STEM. We’re constantly evaluating the needs and interests of girls in an effort to keep up with the speed of girls. Currently we offer a robust robotics program for girls in grades K-8. Girls can explore robotics by attending a day event, a Community Event Provider activity, or by participating on a GSWISE FIRST LEGO League team.

Girls try a coding game at #CodeGirl

GSWISE also launched a #CodeGirl initiative in May 2015. Girls can explore the world of computer science by attending a day event, participating in the Code & Go program that happens during the school day, or attending an event in which we collaborate with local businesses and colleges.

GSWISE works with a variety of program partners to include STEM careers such as engineering, manufacturing, research and development, entrepreneurship, robotics, and computer science. We also incorporate STEM activities into day events and summer camps.

How do you think STEM activities teach girls how to overcome challenges and obstacles?

Crystal: A big part of STEM activities is trial and error and understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s about the process and learning. STEM activities teach teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, evaluation, and perseverance. When participating in a STEM activity, it is very rare that you get perfect results on the first try because there’s always room for improvement.

“A big part of STEM activities is trial and error and understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes.”

Can you describe a time when you saw a program spark an interest in STEM for a girl?

Crystal: We have been working with the Society of Women Engineers— UW-Milwaukee Student Chapter for several years. Annually, these young women host an event that incorporates different types of engineering. They show girls what it really looks like to be an engineer in the classroom, share their educational experiences, and engage girls in several hands-on activities.

One girl in particular was not thrilled about attending the event, probably because she didn’t truly understand what engineers do. Halfway through the event, her attitude took a 180-degree turn. She was engaged with her teammate and was asking really great questions that related to her potential future in engineering.

Technology is rapidly changing, how do you think Girl Scouts prepares girls for our ever-evolving world?

Crystal: We strive to stay on the cutting edge of technology and continue to open doors, providing opportunities for girls that might not otherwise be possible. We collaborate with some amazing organizations, businesses, colleges, and universities to bring unique experiences to every girl. It’s these types of experiences that help create a confident leader who can embrace change in our ever-evolving world.

What advice would you give to parents or troop leaders who want to get their girls involved in STEM programs but aren’t sure how to start?

Crystal: Start with the girl. Ask her what parts of STEM interest her. Help her find opportunities based on her interests, and go from there. It’s important to realize that STEM incorporates a lot of different careers. She might try some things that she loves and some things that she could live without. Don’t be discouraged when she stumbles into something that she doesn’t care for. It’s an important part of defining who she is and who she wants to be.

“Start with the girl. Ask her what parts of STEM interest her. Help her find opportunities based on her interests, and go from there.”

For example, we had a girl on a robotics team. She loved everything about working with a team, creating an innovative solution to a real world problem, doing research and working with community professionals. She enjoyed presenting her findings and building a prototype of the innovative solution. However, she soon learned that she didn’t like robotics and cringed at the thought of programming a robot. Her coach and parents got discouraged and thought, ‘You can’t be on a robotics team if you don’t like robotics.’ Wrong! In my opinion, removing the girl from the team would not have been in the best interest of the girl or the team. She was intelligent, a leader, creative, and self-motivated. Even though she didn’t want to do robotics, she could still be a scientist, innovator, or an engineer.

Girl Scouts are always striving to make the world a better place. How do you think girls can make a difference with a career in STEM?

Cyrstal: Girls may or may not know what kind of career they want, but know they want to help people in some way. It’s important for girls to understand the connection between their potential career and how that career can help make the world a better place. A lot of girls are interested in STEM because of the clear connection to the Girl Scout mission.

Whether they are interested in protecting the environment or animals, curing diseases, innovating new products, doing research, or developing new technologies, STEM careers have a clear impact and intent to make the world a better place for others.

Begin your girl’s STEM adventures at gswise.org.