Economic Opportunity Through STEM: Techbridge Girls Champions Technology-Focused Education for Girls in Low-Income Communities

Economic Opportunity Through STEM: Techbridge Girls Champions Technology-Focused Education for Girls in Low-Income Communities

TL; DR: Techbridge Girls is on a mission to encourage girls in low-income communities to achieve economic mobility through multifaceted STEM programs. The organization, which turns 20 next year, aims to serve 1 million girls by 2030. Through its high-quality programming and a support system of engaged adults, Techbridge Girls is working to equip elementary through high school girls and their communities with inspiring STEM enrichment experiences.

As America aims to stay competitive in the global economy through high-quality STEM education, there’s one group of citizens who are frequently ignored: girls and young women, especially minorities in low-income communities who attend high-poverty schools with fewer resources.

The situation is even more disheartening when you consider the benefits that access to a quality STEM education could provide that demographic. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, STEM workers enjoy a pay advantage of up to 26% when compared with non-STEM workers with similar educational achievements. The average full-time STEM worker earns $54,745 annually, while a similarly educated non-STEM worker earns $40,505.

Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO at Techbridge Girls

Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO, gave us an inside look at how Techbridge Girls is expanding STEM opportunities for participants.

Techbridge Girls is looking to provide fair access to these economic opportunities through equity in education. Dr. Linda Kekelis launched the nonprofit in 2000, disregarding the notion that girls aren’t interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Through her research, literature, and interviews with other youth-serving organizations, she found that it’s not that girls don’t like STEM — it’s that we’ve created poor experiences and pedagogy, and failed to expose them to STEM in the real world, locking them out of opportunities,” said Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO at Techbridge Girls. “Techbridge Girls was birthed out of a desire to correct that.”

Today, nearly 20 years later, the organization is still focused on delivering high-quality enrichment programming so that girls can see STEM as a possibility in their futures, and, more importantly, a pathway toward economic mobility.

Striving to Serve 1 Million Girls By 2030

In its 20 years of existence, Techbridge Girls has served more than 7,000 girls, 20,000 educators, 1,400 family members, 1,500 role models, and 1,000 volunteers, as well as an additional 70,000 students through its proprietary, National Science Foundation-certified STEM lessons.

And, by 2030, the organization hopes to reach 1 million girls through a partnership with Expand Your Horizons that will enhance programmatic strengths across the country.

As of now, the organization operates out of regional offices in California, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C. to deliver high-quality STEM programs to K-12 girls from low-income, under-resourced communities.

“We have the ability to stick with our girls as long as they possibly want to stay within Techbridge Girls,” Nikole said. “We strategically partner with Title 1-eligible schools and nonprofits to create pathways that will take our girls from elementary through high school.”

Techbridge Girls map

Techbridge Girls has a coast-to-coast presence and a robust expansion strategy.

At the elementary school level, the InspireTM program focuses on fostering excitement for STEM in fourth- and fifth-grade girls through hands-on activities across several disciplines. In middle school, the ChangemakersTM program educates girls on the technical and soft skills needed to succeed in STEM fields. And in high school, the AchieversTM program connects girls to STEM resources through college and credentialing programs.

“Our first step is removing the barriers to high-quality, equitable STEM education and enrichment experiences in the low-income community,” Nikole said. “We expose them to careers in STEM, introduce them to role models who are stem professionals, and find hands-on activities that are relevant culturally and are gender responsive to the experiences that they have within their own communities.”

Building a Support System of Adults and After-School Opportunities

The second step, Nikole said, is to activate a support system of adults who will help the girls see their academic journey through.

“It’s about engaging families by providing the resources they need and acknowledging the influential role that they play in encouraging girls toward STEM,” Nikole said. “It’s also introducing professional industry role models who are equipped to engage, recruit, and connect with our girls so they can envision taking on a STEM career.”

Photos of Techbridge Girls participants

Techbridge Girls is working to equip elementary through high school girls with STEM enrichment experiences.

To that end, the organization is also focused on bringing alumni back into the fold to serve as role models for new generations of young women. “If the industry is unable to produce role models that come from the same backgrounds and experiences of our girls, then we can activate our alumni to be that example going forward,” Nikole said.

Techbridge Girls wants to shift the narrative around the value a stronger female presence will bring to the STEM workforce. It’s well-known that greater ethnic and gender diversity in the tech workforce makes good business sense, leading to more innovation and higher revenue. But that’s not all.

“We also need to recognize that it’s not just an industry impact, it’s an economic imperative that we include a population of girls in STEM careers that are, with or without a four-year degree, able to obtain a living wage,” Nikole said. “You are changing the trajectory of their future, of poverty, but also economically for our country as a whole.”

The Impact of High-Quality STEM Enrichment Experiences

For the last 15 years, Techbridge Girls has operated under a National Science Foundation grant that mandates a rigorous program evaluation process.

Each year, third-party evaluators conduct an outcomes-based assessment to gauge the organization’s efficacy in helping girls develop technical skills and aptitude; increase self-confidence, persistence and leadership skills; and promote greater awareness and interest in science, technology, and engineering careers.

The evaluation leverages quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods, including surveys, interviews, observation, and focus groups, to evaluate the impact of direct service and capacity-building programs on both girls and educators. “We know that our program is working because of the level of rigor in our evaluation,” Nikole said. “It’s a key part of who we are as an organization.”

Results from 2017 through 2018 indicate that Techbridge Girls is making a significant impact. For example, 96% of girls in the program said they believe that engineering is a good career for women, 98% of parents said that the program has increased their daughters’ confidence in STEM, and 100% of teachers said students increased their understanding of how to prepare for careers in STEM.

And, according to a longitudinal study conducted with the Oakland Unified School District in California, Techbridge Girls participants are more likely to exhibit increased confidence, improved academic performance, and greater tendency to pursue STEM college majors and careers.

“Our girls are enrolling in calculus courses more often,” Nikole said. “They also have higher grades in those courses. They are graduating at higher rates. They’re performing higher on their state standard algebra test. And they’re more likely than the national average to pursue a STEM degree and career.”

New Partnerships and a 20th Anniversary

Ultimately, STEM is not the endgame for Techbridge Girls, but a vehicle with which participants can reach economic freedom. “It’s not just about getting our girls into STEM — it’s what STEM allows them to do with their life as a whole,” Nikole said. “It opens doors that lead to economic mobility for them, which is a total change from where they come from.”

As the organization prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020, it is focused on helping even more young women find success through exciting and inspiring STEM experiences. Its partnership with Expand Your Horizons is part of that effort. “The new partnership will allow Techbridge Girls to be in 43 states across the country, recruiting over 25,000 girls annually,” Nikole said.

Techbridge Girls is also growing internally, and the group recently hired three alumni as staff members. “Our organization represents the background of our participants — it’s extremely diverse,” Nikole said. “I think that that is why we have such an impact through the work that we do with our girls and educators.”

Christine Preusler

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