Apr 10, 2018 | Atlanta, GA
A dozen fourth and fifth grade girls huddle around a table, laughing and shouting as they compete to pick up straws with a prosthetic hand that they designed with their newfound knowledge of biomedical engineering. In the background, two college students proudly watch as the young girls have their first experience with robotics. These students are members of Stempower, a female-founded mentoring organization at Georgia Tech.
The masterminds behind Stempower are Kaitlin Rizk, Brenna Fromayan, Natalie Leonard and Wendy Ng. They envisioned and cultivated an organization with the mission to demystify science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), break stereotypes, encourage growth and build self-efficacy for young girls. The founders developed their startup through CREATE-X, a Tech program with a mission to instill entrepreneurial confidence in students, helping them take their idea to market.
The numbers tell their success story. Since 2016, the program has had more than 200 girls participate. Eighty percent of the girls are now more interested STEM, and 63 percent have higher self-confidence.
“We have them draw an engineer in the beginning, and they'll draw a man in overalls,” said Kaitlin Rizk, a fourth year industrial and systems engineering student and CEO of Stempower. “By the end, they'll draw a woman working in the STEM field.”
The founders of Stempower met as freshmen in the Grand Challenges Living Learning Community, a program in which students work in groups to tackle a problem facing humanity. They formed a team that chose to investigate why there are fewer females than males in engineering and why such a low percentage of female engineers are in the workforce (only 13% of engineers in the workforce are currently female).
Almost immediately, they discovered research that showed that girls have lower self-confidence than boys. Also known as self-efficacy, the evidence of this is undeniable – on average, girls are 35 points lower than boys on their SAT scores. In order to attempt a difficult question or even raise their hand in class, girls must be extremely self-confident, while their male counterparts tend to dive right in, according to Rizk.
The group also discovered that once women earn their engineering degrees, many end up leaving the field because they lack female role models and a community of women, resulting in an underrepresentation of female engineers.
The Stempower team set about improving self-confidence and retention of women in STEM careers, creating a business model that combined mentorship with hands-on experience. They first partnered with Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta.
Once a month, mentors teach fourth and fifth grade troops about speaking up in class. The mentors spend a few hours working with the young girls to teach them confidence-building strategies for the classroom. Each session begins with a short lesson that is intended to help the girls develop their sense of self-efficacy.
“At the end of the day, you can be extremely intelligent, but if you don't believe in your own skills, you're not going to be able to get as far as you could,” said Brenna Fromayan, a fourth year industrial and systems engineering student and a vice president and cofounder of Stempower.
The troop sessions are hands-on, with girls participating in activities like designing prosthetic arms or building circuits. The mentors then work to relate the self-efficacy lesson with the engineering challenge the girls completed.
After Stempower spent a year fleshing out their idea in the Grand Challenges program and getting started with the mentorship program, they started looking for more help to implement their solution.
CREATE-X provided them with the skills and financial support they needed to make their idea a reality. Stempower participated in the Startup Launch program, which provided them with $20,000 and the resources to transform their program from an idea into a real business. Stempower is now a registered corporation and is moving towards becoming a nonprofit.
As the women of the Stempower team matured, they utilized more of the problem-solving skills that they learned in their engineering classes to manage projects and confront challenges outside of the classroom.
“I think the whole STEM aspect of teaching comes naturally to us, but when you go from a student organization to running a business, there are so many additional factors,” said Fromayan. “It becomes complex pretty quickly. It's definitely been a big learning experience, but I feel like it's been going well so far.”
Eventually, Stempower grew so large that it wasn’t something the four of them could do alone. They recruited other female students from Georgia Tech to become the mentors that would go out to Girl Scout troops and teach the lessons. Now, the original four members have stepped back to run the business, managing the various chapters and developing a roadmap for the future.
Stempower has expanded its reach all over the world. There are chapters at Stanford University, Purdue University, University of Tennessee and many other colleges. They have stepped beyond serving just Atlanta-based Girl Scout troops and are investigating partnerships with Girl Scouts of America and with private elementary schools.
There are even chapters in Uganda and Kenya. When Rizk lived in Uganda for a summer, she realized that girls in other countries face some of the same issues that American students.
“One day I was playing with kids after work, and I asked them ‘Who wants to be an engineer?’” said Rizk. “All the girls stared at me and all the boys shot their hands up.”
Stempower’s influence is now international, and they are looking for ways to impact the girls that don’t have mentoring programs in their areas. Their “STEM kit” is one way to do this: a box containing circuit supplies for a girl to make her name in lights, an action figure and a book with a heroine.
“There's a big gap in the market for STEM toys,” said Rizk. “We went to Target and Toys-R-Us and it was pretty pitiful to see all the Legos branded either masculine or feminine, and there were very few STEM kits for girls. We want something that's really giving girls STEM experience.”
For the four original members of Stempower, graduation isn’t too far off. They are working furiously to make sure that the business is still moving in a positive direction once they graduate. Some of them will continue working with the organization that they cultivated from the ground up, and others will move on to careers in research or industry. Either way, Stempower chapters will continue to provide young girls with the confidence to raise their hand in class.