As schools continue working to better engage girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a number of STEM-focused foundations are partnering to form the Million Girls Moonshot initiative to hook one million more girls on these subject areas over the next five years. The organizations — which include the Intel Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, STEM Next Opportunity Fund and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation — will provide grants and in-kind resources to Mott-funded afterschool networks to increase access to STEM learning experiences.

“The purpose of the Million Girls Moonshot is to work towards closing the gender gap,” said Dr. Penny Noyce — founding board chair for STEM Next Opportunity Fund and daughter of one of the Intel founders, Robert Noyce. “We are trying to pull together a cross-section of technology companies, government organizations, state and afterschool providers to provide grant funding, in-kind resources and access to resources and STEM mentors.”

Though women make up half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, they continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. For example, they make up just 16% of engineers, according to a press release. And Black and Latina women only make up 2% of that field. With a STEM professional shortfall of about 1 million workers in the near future, industry leaders say engaging girls and minorities is critical.

There were very few women and minorities in engineering when Gabriela González, deputy director of the Intel Foundation, launched her engineering career at Xerox in the early 1990s. By 2005, lack of diversity was an industry concern. Yet five years later, nothing had changed.

“As a double minority, being both a Latina and a woman, I started asking ‘Where are the rest of us?’” she said. “I started looking at the research, and there was nothing reassuring that showed anything was going to change.”

After researching the issue, González realized systemic barriers were preventing the industry from diversifying.

“Parents may still be a bit conservative when it comes to what careers are right for women,” she said. “Parents may also be intimidated by some careers and they may not have the resources to pay for tutors in math or science to help students advance in their careers.”

Anne Moore, a career and technical education and STEM teacher in Goochland County Public Schools in Virginia, agrees.

“There are still many girls and minority students who are not encouraged to pursue STEM careers due to family pressure, peer pressure or lack of self confidence,” she said. “My classes this year are mostly boys.”

To break the barriers, these underrepresented groups need one-on-one encouragement so they feel comfortable talking about their interests and pursuing STEM careers, Moore said.

The consortium is directing its funds to afterschool science programs where the money will have the greatest impact, Noyce said.

“We can do more to increase the quality and quantity of the afterschool science programs than we can in schools,” Noyce said. “We can also do more to inspire kids and help get them through whatever challenges they had. Students can do better in school when they are inspired in their afterschool programs. It gives them the confidence and drive to carry on.”

The South Carolina Afterschool Alliance offers STEM programs that allow participants to design solutions to pertinent problems that affect them. For example, STEM students can develop an app that addresses a community need or redesign a classroom for 25 students that adheres to social distancing guidelines.

“When you think about afterschool programs, you think about young children,” said Zelda Quiller Waymer, president and CEO of South Carolina Afterschool Alliance. “It’s important to include the older ones.”

Afterschool programs can provide STEM connections, programs and mentors for students as they make their way toward college and the workforce, Quiller Waymer said.

The South Carolina program teamed up with Claflin University, an HBCU, to send high school girls and boys to a biomedical/biomaterials research summer internship program.

“It allows them to work with research professors and see that there is someone who looks like them doing this kind of research,” Quiller Waymer said. “The internship also provides students the opportunities to develop those soft skills that businesses need.”

Pia Wilson-Body, president of the Intel Foundation, said mentorship is one way to solve the lack of diversity problem.

One of the barriers women of color have traditionally faced is a lack of STEM mentors and role models who look like them,” she said. “The Million Girls Moonshot will change that. By focusing on equity and inclusion, engaging local communities and existing afterschool programs, and by providing access to diverse STEM mentors including Intel employee volunteers, the Million Girls Moonshot will help keep girls of color supported and engaged in STEM fields so they continue their passion for STEM in high school and beyond.”

By directing its funds into afterschool programs, the movement could reach as many as 10 million youth through 100,000 afterschool learning programs, she said. These programs sometimes provide opportunities that schools can’t, said Talia Milgrom-Elcott, executive director and co-founder of 100Kin10. 

“In many [schools], the coursework is dated and not applicable,” Milgrom-Elcott said. “In schools that serve mostly Black and Brown students, 30% don’t offer chemistry, so students can’t get the skills they need because they aren’t even offering the course at their school.”

Funds from the Million Girls Moonshot movement will help afterschool programs continue to fill the STEM workplace pipeline with a diversified workforce, said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance.

“The reality is that for most kids that do go into STEM, the spark doesn’t happen in school,” Grant said. “It happens in afterschool programs like robotics, coding or design.”

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly made it difficult for afterschool programs to serve their traditional demographic due to social distancing, Grant sees another pandemic impact area where Million Girls Moonshot can help: funding.

“The lack of federal funding is very alarming to us,” said Grant. “The Million Girls Moonshot movement will help afterschool programs continue to deliver these programs.”

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