The Girl Scouts Reinvents Itself into a Critical STEM Pipeline

The organization has come a long way from homemaking and crafts to encouraging girls in STEM activities and education.

By Marcie Mathis, SWE Editorial Board

While researching information for this piece, I marveled at how far the Girl Scouts have come since I was a Scout, which was circa the early 1970s.

I recently found my Junior and Cadette Girl Scout Handbooks from then. (My Junior Girl Scout Handbook has a copyright of 1963.) The Junior Handbook (ages 8–11 years) contains 46 badges, three of which have some STEM-related aspects: Observer, Pets, and Rambler. Compare this with the nine badges at the time geared toward home, crafts, and hospitality.

Even then, though, the Girl Scouts were growing future leaders, and many of the other badges related to working as a group (troop or family), citizenship, and outdoors. The Cadette Handbook (ages 11–14 years) offered more STEM options.

Since then, the organization has come a long way in encouraging Girl Scouts in STEM activities and education. Based on the online information, there are 19 STEM badges for Junior Girl Scouts, including all aspects of STEM, from nature to robotics to cybersecurity to design. Some of the badges, such as cybersecurity, sound interesting enough that I want to do the work to earn them!

Now, I find the organization’s understanding of the importance of STEM in all aspects of life, and the criticality of having a pipeline for diverse future STEM leaders, equally commendable.

In 2012, the Girl Scout Research Institute issued a comprehensive, 30-page report titled “Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” The research found that while 74% of teen girls are interested in STEM fields and STEM subjects, many of them didn’t list a STEM career as their first choice.

Pipeline to the future

Then, in 2017, the Girl Scouts of the USA launched a national initiative designed to help close the gender gap in STEM education and employment by putting 2.5 million girls through its STEM programs by 2025.

According to the document “Four Ways Girl Scouts Builds Girl Leaders in STEM,” on the organization’s website, “Girl Scouts provides countless opportunities for young girls to jump into STEM and explore their interests and passions with fun, challenging activities like building robots, designing apps and video games, and collecting data to help scientists protect the environment.”

I spoke with Julie Wendell, chief mission delivery officer for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington (GSWW), and she explained how their robust STEM programming includes partnering with groups like SWE, as well as local companies such as The Boeing Company and Alaska Airlines.

In June, for example, the SWE Pacific Northwest Section held “Think Like an Engineer,” an in-person Girl Scouts workshop for fourth- and fifth-graders to encourage them to use design thinking to solve problems and work through three design challenges. Participants were required to build: a paper structure to support heavy books, an emergency shelter sturdy enough to fit at least one person, and a structure that can withstand an earthquake’s shake.

During a quick look at the GSWW website, I found 14 STEM-related activities, some virtual and some hands on, during July and August. One particularly interesting in-person activity includes a “hands-on opportunity to learn about aircraft maintenance and TAKE FLIGHT!” at a local flight school.

I have long been impressed with the Girl Scouts’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Now, I find the organization’s understanding of the importance of STEM in all aspects of life, and the criticality of having a pipeline for diverse future STEM leaders, equally commendable. The Girl Scouts’ efforts toward not only encouraging girls to learn and experience STEM, but also providing such a variety of fun, interesting, and accessible opportunities for them to do so, makes me hopeful.

Marcie Mathis (she, her) graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She has spent most of her engineering career as a civilian U.S. Navy employee and works at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. She joined SWE in 1988 as a student and serves on the multicultural committee and as a member of the editorial board.