A new Girl Scout badge aims to keep more girls in math and science

Moira Clark is familiar with the stereotype that girls aren't as inclined toward science as boys.

Especially if that science comes with scales, a long tail and four scuttling feet.

The Buena Park resident, a Girl Scout since kindergarten, has an affinity for reptiles, to the point where she owns a pet alligator lizard and bearded dragon. In the future, she hopes to be a herpetologist — a zoologist who specializes in reptiles and amphibians. Earlier this month, she even obtained a harness to walk the bearded dragon around her home.

"There seems to be a stereotype about boys liking snakes and girls being afraid of snakes," the 12-year-old said. "And I like snakes."

This fall, Moira will have a new opportunity to hone her interests. Girl Scouts of Orange County has spent the last several months preparing a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — badge for sixth- to eighth-grade Cadettes, and the council plans to offer it when its new membership year starts Oct. 1.

The badge, the first created specially by Girl Scouts of Orange County, aims to stoke passion for science and math at an age when many girls lose interest in them. And though the program will make extended use of Orange County-based companies, the issue it addresses is far from merely local.

In 2012, a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute reported that while 74% of teenage girls are interested in STEM courses, only about 25% of industry jobs are held by women. Fifty-seven percent of girls surveyed said they would have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously in a STEM career. And the ranks of girls dedicated to STEM thin during middle school as boys outpace them.

The report concludes that the challenge "is how to turn girls' interest into action and make STEM the winner in the competition for girls' attention when it comes to career choices." Nancy Nygren, the chief executive of the Orange County council, suspects that one answer is to apply STEM to activities far outside the classroom.

In the badge program, girls may study physics by watching roller coasters at Knott's Berry Farm or Disneyland. They may master data storage by downloading songs on a smartphone. Chemistry through nail polish, engineering through sand castles — whatever makes the subject matter resonate.

"This is a single badge that's really introducing girls to how STEM is already a part of their lives across the board," Nygren said. "So it's helping our Cadette-age Girl Scouts see that science, technology, engineering and math are a part of their favorite things that they're already doing."

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Creative ways to stoke interest

The national Girl Scout study found that a key factor in STEM interest was a mother's encouragement. And it was a mother, fittingly, who helped inspire the badge project in Orange County.

Prasanthi Sathyaprakash, senior manager of commodity management for the Irvine-based communications company Broadcom, had taken note of her older daughter's eagerness to earn Scouting badges and checked for a STEM badge at Girl Scouts of Orange County. When she found none, Broadcom officials met with Scout leaders to talk about launching a STEM program.

Ultimately, eight more companies — Capital Group, Cox Communications, Deloitte, Fluor, Ingram Micro, Kaiser Permanente Orange County, PAAMCO and Western Digital — joined Broadcom in the STEM Consortium, which will partner with the Scouts to arrange activities for girls.

"We have a very enthusiastic group of women who are part of what's called the Broadcom Women's Network, and they're obviously very interested in seeing that more women, which I see as the untapped talent in STEM, are tapped," said Paula Golden, director of community affairs for Broadcom and president and executive director of its foundation.

"We've put a lot of thought into how we reach young women, because it isn't productive not to take their passions and interests into account."

Whether those passions veer toward roller coasters or smartphones, the STEM badge will involve five steps: explore, investigate, create, experience and present. Girls will have multiple options for meeting each step. Emilie Perkins, the communications director for Girl Scouts of Orange County, said girls could complete the badge requirements in a full school year or even a few weeks.

Specific plans are still in progress. Broadcom, which already runs a youth science program, may use small Raspberry Pi computers to teach girls to code, according to Golden. Alexandra Coupe, an associate director at PAAMCO, mentioned inviting Scouts to the company headquarters to show them how hedge funds work. Holly Garcia, senior director of vendor management at Ingram Micro, suggested letting girls shadow female executives.

"When I was a Girl Scout, this type of opportunity didn't exist," Garcia said. "And I would kind of say that, then, I didn't know what I didn't know."

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Improving the ratio

In planning the STEM badge, Girl Scouts of Orange County made sure to tap into what girls knew already. The council surveyed current and incoming Cadettes about their favorite school subjects, pastimes and more.

Samantha Kinney of San Clemente, who participated in the survey and plans to enter the badge program, called science her favorite subject and said her interest was partly piqued by living close to the ocean.

"There's a lot of science behind the ocean and the topography and the geography of the area," said Samantha, 12. "So I'm mostly interested in the science, but the technology sounds like a lot of fun because I could learn to do more stuff with computers and how to explore the details of electronics."

If she does, there may be more than a few people pushing for her to succeed.

Despite high-profile leaders such as Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman, the dearth of women in technology careers has roused concern in recent years. In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple had a 4-to-1 ratio of men to women in technical sectors.

A study published around the same time in the Harvard Business Review outlined five major reasons why women leave STEM careers. They range from isolation from colleagues to "walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent and too masculine to be likable."

Even the White House website contains a page titled "Women in STEM," with a quote from President Obama urging more math and science interest among girls and lamenting that "half the population ... is way underrepresented in those fields."

(The Department of Energy launched a program in 2011 to pair female STEM undergraduates with female mentors in the Washington, D.C., area, and last year it began a video series spotlighting women in the profession.)

Can a few key experiences between sixth and eighth grade help effect that change? Nygren suspects that they could.

"The research shows that that's the age when girls either embrace their love of STEM topics or back off on them," she said. "And there's a lot of reason for that, a lot of which has to do with peer pressure and pressure to be around boys and not be the 'smart girl.' Sometimes, girls are made to feel uncomfortable about being really smart and tackling some of those harder subjects."

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