Engaging Youth with STEM Professionals in Afterschool Programs

Melissa Koch, Annie Georges, Torie Gorges, and Reina Fujii

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The interplay between youth development staff and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals can influence girls’ interest in STEM careers. Build IT, an afterschool and summer youth-based curriculum for middle school girls, uses design, communication technologies, and structured interactions with IT professionals to encourage girls’ IT fluency, interest in mathematics, and exploration of STEM careers. A mixed method, pre-post test design to evaluate the program revealed that even with limited interactions, girls’ expectations of success and attitudes about STEM careers were influenced when they interacted with female professionals, and these interactions increased the value that girls placed on STEM careers. Moreover, the development facilitator’s support during implementation—especially activities before, during, and after a visit with a professional—was critical. We share implications for practice on how to encourage girls’ interest in technology careers.


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Women constitute 46% of the US workforce but hold just 27% of computer science and engineering jobs, with minority women holding roughly 7% of these jobs (National Science Foundation, 2007). The fundamental obstacles to girls entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce today are the value they place on STEM careers, their interest in STEM topics, and their perceived success in STEM fields (Barman, 1996; Brickhouse, Lowry & Schultz, 2000; Chambers, 1983; Eccles, 1994, 2006, 2007). To increase girls’ perception of the value and success in pursuing STEM careers, they need to see their interests reflected in STEM courses and in informal learning opportunities so that science, technology, and mathematics become a central part of the “girl they are” (Brickhouse et al., 2000). Research suggests to overcome these fundamental obstacles, girls should participate in tasks that are relevant to their lives and have a larger social impact, connect with role models in STEM professions, and receive feedback and encouragement (Eccles, 1994; Halpern et al., 2007; NCWIT, 2007).

Many organizations provide guidelines on how to plan and implement successful classroom visits or field trips with STEM professionals. This is vital because interactions with STEM professionals are viewed as important in overcoming the obstacles girls face in entering STEM professions (e.g., Expanding Your Horizon [] and Techbridge’ s Guide for STEM Role Models. The Techbridge guidelines (Countryman, Kekelis, & Wei, 2006), for example, encourage STEM professionals to be personal, passionate, and communicate how their work matters when they visit classrooms or conduct field trips. Even though STEM programs, whether implemented in K-12 classrooms or during afterschool programs, often incorporate activities with STEM professionals, few if any programs collect the kinds of data needed to determine how staff and facilitators should connect and integrate professionals’ roles in these programs to effectively influence girls to enter STEM fields. We contribute to the literature by presenting findings on a youth development program for middle school girls that successfully integrated information technology (IT) professionals into the curriculum and supported youth development staff in providing positive experiences that affected the girls’ attitudes and interests in IT careers. We present findings from the implementation and evaluation of Build IT, an afterschool and summer youth-based curriculum for middle school girls, from 2005 through 2009.

We describe the key factors required to effectively integrate IT professionals (a subset of STEM focused on technology, computer science, and engineering) into STEM programs for girls. Our work provides research-based evidence on the type and quality of activities with IT professionals and girls’ interactions with youth development staff that correlate with girls’ increased interest in IT careers. We addressed two research questions: (1) What are the changes in attitudes and interests in IT careers among participants? and (2) In what ways do interactions with IT professionals and the youth development facilitator influence participants’ attitudes and interests in IT careers?

Below, we describe the Build IT program and then present the data from our interviews and observations that show IT professionals can be effectively integrated into afterschool programs in ways that could increase the value that girls see in IT careers. We then discuss the lessons learned which can guide youth development programs to support girls’ interest in IT careers.

About the Build IT Program

The Build IT curriculum is a collaborative effort between SRI International, Girls Incorporated of Alameda County (GIAC), and the national Girls Inc. network of affiliates. It is an afterschool and summer youth-based curriculum for low-income middle school girls (sixth through eighth grades) intended to develop IT fluency, interest in mathematics, and knowledge of IT careers. The curriculum capitalizes on girls’ interest in design and communication technologies and incorporates performance tasks for formatively assessing IT fluency. The Build IT curriculum helps girls explore existing information technologies (e.g., web-based tools, collaboration tools, wireless and mobile devices) and create their own information technologies using simple programming tools. The curriculum consists of six units in which the girls critique and critically frame problems, engage in guided practice in which they participate in a software engineering process, and have opportunities to redesign and troubleshoot available technologies. Each unit builds on the previous one.

The curriculum includes structured interactions with IT professionals that provide opportunities for professionals to share their career paths, education, and the interests they had as middle school students and to co-lead an activity with the youth development facilitator. In addition to field trips and visits with IT professionals, the curriculum has five additional elements: (1) participating girls make presentations to IT professionals, peers, and the community during Family Tech Night; (2) staff refer to careers throughout the curriculum (e.g., give girls trading cards that feature women in IT professions); (3) staff co-lead the field trip or visit sessions with IT professionals, making connections to the curriculum for the girls; (4) girls use tools and practices similar to those that IT professionals use (e.g., design process, HTML, object-oriented programming); and (5) girls work on topics and issues similar to those confronting IT professionals (e.g., designing, programming, user research).

Participants also engage in mathematics activities that directly relate to the IT content, such as exploring graph theory to understand networks, using combinatorics to find the number of color combinations available for a website, and using logic models and algorithmic thinking to program a computer game. These activities are meant to give girls exposure and practice with applied mathematics and address specific middle school mathematics concepts noted in the NCTM (2001) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics.



Build IT was implemented first at GIAC for 3 years and then at six other Girls Inc. affiliates in the United States and Canada for 2 years. During that period the Build IT program reached approximately 800 middle-school girls who completed one or more units of the curriculum. There were two stages of recruitment into the program. In the first 3 years Build IT was part of GIAC’s All STARS program, an afterschool program for middle school girls in the San Francisco Bay area. The All STARS program provides academic enrichment, homework assistance, social support, and health and fitness development for participating girls. Build IT was added to GIAC’s All STARS as the technology component. Teachers and administrators from middle schools near the GIAC sites recommended girls to attend the All STARS program, parents encouraged their daughters to attend, and the girls themselves chose to participate. Recruitment at other Girls Inc. sites varied. Four of the affiliates have a model similar to GIAC, in which girls join an afterschool program that includes Build IT as one of several components; the other two affiliates recruited specifically for Build IT. Thus, overall the participants in Build IT are not predisposed to have a positive attitude towards technology or interest in IT careers. The participants were 43% Latina, 22% Black, and 7% Asian. With respect to grade level, 37% were in grade 6, 41% in grade 7, and 22% in grade 8.

We conducted a yearly evaluation at each site where the program was implemented for each of the units of Build IT. Table 1 shows the number of participants and the comparison group for each of the five years we conducted the evaluation. Of the 800 girls who experienced some aspect of Build IT and who may have participated in all six units, 316 unique girls completed pre- and post-test surveys over the five years we conducted the evaluation. The first 3 years of the implementation included a comparison group of middle school girls in other afterschool programs near the GIAC affiliate site that served a similar demographic. Of the 123 girls in the comparison group, 17% were Latina, 38% were Black, and 21% were Asian.

Table 1

Table 1

We conducted two classroom observations, interviews with six girls, and staff interviews at each site where Build IT was implemented for each of the units. Over the five-year period we interviewed 170 girls and 21 Girls Inc. staff. We completed more than 50 classroom observations of the program’s implementation.


We used a mixed-method, pre-post test design to evaluate the program. We chose this mixed-method approach to achieve deeper understanding of the factors that influence girls’ attitudes and knowledge building and to have a mechanism for aligning data collected from qualitative and quantitative sources. In other words, when observations, interviews, and surveys told the same story, we had a deep understanding and rich descriptions of the program’s implementation. When they did not align, we investigated the data further. We evaluated the curriculum’s implementation, including the structured interactions with IT professionals, by collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. The data collection occurred each year at affiliate sites where the program was implemented and focused on girls’ IT fluency, interest in pursuing IT careers, and plans to take mathematics courses. Regarding IT career interest, both sources of data provided information on engagement of IT professionals with girls during field trips and visits and girls’ interactions with the youth development facilitator during implementation of the program.

The qualitative data were collected through observations of the curriculum’s implementation and observations of IT professionals’ visits and field trips. Interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes. Some interviews occurred via e-mail. All interviews and observations were semi-structured, allowing for comparison among sites but also giving evaluators the freedom to adapt, as needed, to local conditions at each affiliate. Qualitative data comprised pre- and post-interviews with key stakeholders (i.e., program manager, program coordinators, and group leaders), weekly group leader feedback forms, and girl participant feedback forms.

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 13, Issue 1, 2010
ISSN 1097-9778
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