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IF/THEN® Ambassadors Use Innovative Technologies and Partnerships To Promote Girls in STEM

Students enjoying science in the classroom.
Students enjoying science in the classroom. | Paula Garcia Todd

This is the second in a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here; to read Part 3, click here.

For the past few months, the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors have been wrapping up more than 90 different “She Can Change the World” public engagement projects they developed with “mini-grant” funding provided by Lyda Hill Philanthropies.

These projects are designed to engage middle school girls and others with the goal of creating a more supportive environment for girls to go into STEM.

This series profiles six of the more than 90 projects. We highlight the second two in our series below.

Debbie Sterling – Camp Goldieblox (Online Multimedia Experience)

At the start of the pandemic, as Debbie Sterling was coming up with her idea for a mini-grant project, she thought about how many kids wouldn’t be going to summer camps and who were falling behind at school, and thought, “what if we made the coolest summer camp on the internet?” Sterling is founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a company that started out building toys designed to interest girls in STEM, but now also produces shows and multimedia campaigns celebrating diverse STEM role models. As an ambassador, she knew she “had over 100 incredible role models” at the ready. And she knew from her work that short-form videos are extremely effective in reaching young people, and also that kids love learning from their peers. So Sterling and her team put together an “immersive multimedia experience” they called “Camp Goldieblox,” short episodes featuring three young actors in a digital/virtual reality summer camp who encounter problems they have to solve with science.

When the campers were stuck with something, they could “phone a friend” and talk with one of the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. Sterling noted that they also took an approach of filming the ambassadors in a very casual, “vlog” (video blog) style to make them more relatable, as opposed to creating highly produced, professional-looking interviews. Sterling is featured in the first episode, in which the campers inadvertently break a bridge and must build a new one, and in doing this, learn about the importance of triangles in bridge-building. In another episode, they get lost in the dark and phone an astrophysicist, who helps them navigate using the stars. Each episode is paired with a DIY activity kids can do at home, like this “toothpick bridge” activity.

Sterling partnered with the Million Girls Moonshot program, which allowed them to work with STEM educators to incorporate the “engineering mindset” into the content. They also partnered with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls in producing and distributing the shows, as well as with Common Sense Media’s Sensical platform. Altogether, they have had about 20 million views and over 53,000 hours watched.

“We have formed such strong relationships now with the ambassadors… we want to continue to find ways to get them on camera and collaborate with them in great storytelling. Our goal and Lyda Hill’s is one and the same,” says Sterling.

The first episode of Camp Goldieblox: Adventures at Eureka Point | Debbie Sterling

Paula Garcia Todd – STEM Professional School Partnership

Paula Garcia Todd’s idea for her mini-grant project came from a survey she did several years ago when she worked at DuPont (she is now a global strategic manager at IFF Pharma Solutions). As part of developing a global STEM outreach strategy, she surveyed about 200 educators across the country, and there was one piece of feedback that really stood out to her: while teachers appreciated when STEM professionals came to their classrooms, they also really wanted to have more sustained relationships with them. For her project, Garcia Todd decided to do just that: create partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals. She reached out to Science ATL, which runs the Atlanta Science Festival and many other programs, and they happened to also be considering how to do something like this.

Together, Garcia Todd and Science ATL created the STEM Professional School Partnership program. In the first year, paid for by the Lyda Hill mini-grant, they created 32 pairs of teachers and STEM professionals across nine school districts in Atlanta. This year, they have expanded to 50 partnerships. At the start of the program, each pair held meetings to discuss both the needs and desires of the school, and what the STEM professional could offer, including who else they could connect the teacher with to support their specific interests. The pairs identified two goals for the year to help shape the activities they planned for students. The program required a minimum of one monthly interaction, but some groups did as many as five or six activities per month (they were asked to submit a quick monthly log to capture the interactions they had, including how many kids, demographic information, etc).   

One class got involved in an underwater robotics competition, even though they had no pool at their school, and they won the regional competition and went to a national competition. Another class was connected by their STEM professional with the Georgia Tech Society of Women Engineers, who helped them participate in a Rube Goldberg competition – and two of their students won awards.

Garcia Todd noted that 90% of the schools involved were Title I schools who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to invest in programs like this. They also wanted the STEM professionals who were involved to be very diverse: in the first year, they were 60% women and 75% Black or Latinx. The program impacted 4,500 students in its first year, and this year they hope to reach 10,000, thanks to the additional five years of funding provided by local companies who became interested in their work. To read more about her approach and perspectives on this project, see her AAAS blog post, Creating Successful Partnerships Between Schools and STEM Professionals.

Associated image: Paula Garcia Todd