“Five centimeters plus one ping pong ball—that’s 21 points!” a girl cheers. She, along with several other middle- and high-school girls, surround a table covered in toothpicks and marshmallows, trying to build the tallest freestanding structure they can and then balance different objects on top.
Across the quad, another group of girls creates a “tower of learning”: using a single 3’’x 5’’ index card, they try to elevate several heavy Algebra textbooks off the table. The record? Eleven books.
The girls were attending the launch of a new, innovative program for girls at Menlo School called M-BEST: Menlo’s Bridge to Engineering, Science and Technology. The program aims to encourage girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and math (referred to as STEM by those in the field).
Head of School Norm Colb and program co-leaders Joanie Banks-Hunt and Grace Limaye, teachers at the school, designed the program to combat a national trend. According to the American Association of University Women, while girls are graduating from high school with more math and science credits than boys, they tend not to pursue those disciplines in their collegiate or professional careers. And the National Science Board tells us that workforce projections for 2018 by the U.S. Department of Labor show that nine of the 10 fastest-growing occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training. Many science and engineering occupations are predicted to grow faster than the average rate for all occupations, and some of the largest increases will be in engineering- and computer-related fields—fields in which women currently hold one-quarter or fewer positions.
Colb states the problem clearly: “This country needs to double the number of really competent people in science and technology, and our school can show the way.”
What makes Menlo School’s program innovative? As Colb says, it’s “saturated” with mentoring and hands-on projects, which the AAUW says is crucial to helping girls reach their potential in STEM. Throughout the year, girls in the program will take part in Saturday workshops on several different STEM topics. For example, in the “Go Ask ALICE” workshop, girls will get a hands-on introduction to computer programming from two Menlo computer science faculty members. They’ll also take part in an interactive discussion with two women in the profession, inDinero CEO Jessica Mah and Sim Ops Studios CEO Shanna Tellerman.
Girls will also take field trips, form special advisory groups and undertake a professional mentoring project. High school girls in the program will “buddy” with middle school girls for even more mentoring.
While students have to apply for the program, Grace Limaye insists that “it’s not just about the straight-A student already sold on science. It’s for any curious girl.” The original plan was to include 18 girls in grades six through twelve, though over 90 attended the launch event.
At the launch, NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle spoke in front of a packed crowd about her passion for science and space, describing her trajectory from a young girl hoping to see a man walking across the moon in 1969, to a medical doctor, to a consulting professor at Stanford, U.S. Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut eagerly awaiting her flight assignment and the research she’ll do in space. After her talk, girls swarmed her with questions and requests for autographs.
“I’m really excited for M-BEST,” one girl enthused. “I really want to talk with women who are doing science in the real world.” Another spoke about how she was originally disappointed when her parents forced her to take Banks-Hunt’s engineering elective: “But once I was in the class, I fell in love with it, and now I’ve taken another engineering class, computer science, AP computer science…as much as I can fit in my schedule.”
Grace Limaye asked the group of girls at the launch event, “How many of you have ever put together furniture from IKEA? Or fiddled with a recipe to make it better? Or explained how to use the computer to your parents? You are all already engineers.” With guidance and mentoring like this, these girls may just turn into our next scientific stars.