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Structuring for scale-up success: Techbridge Girls shares lessons from its 5-year scale-up of STEM programs

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Structuring for scale-up success: Techbridge Girls shares lessons from its 5-year scale-up of STEM programs

By Meeta Sharma-Holt, vice president of programs and strategic partnerships at Techbridge Girls. This is the first in a four-blog series: read the second blog, Structuring for scale-up success: Partnerships first.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that STEM jobs are projected to grow to more than 9 million by 2022. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs and obtain an annual salary of $82,000. However, millions of girls in the United States -- predominantly girls of color and immigrant girls -- grow up in low-income communities and attend high-poverty schools. Their reduced access to quality STEM education leaves them out of the STEM workforce and economy.

Elementary school teachers in low-income communities have less access to resources for teaching math, and students are less likely to engage in hands-on science than peers at schools in higher-income communities (Education Commission of U.S.). High schools serving greater numbers of Black and Latinx youth are less likely to have high-level math and science courses (National Science Board).

The causes of the gap in low-income girls pursuing STEM are many and systemic. Still, at Techbridge Girls, we focus on one solution – giving access to high-quality STEM enrichment and identifying a pathway toward economic mobility for girls from low-income communities.

For the past 20 years, we have been changing the economic trajectory of a girls’ life one girl at a time.  This is evident in the trajectory of girls like Aileen Iniguez who participated in our program throughout middle school in our Oakland, CA afterschool program.  Aileen was introduced to Techbridge Girls because she was excited about the free slice of pizza we gave for anyone who showed up.  However, she did not know that a slice of pizza would lead to a life with greater possibilities.  She stayed connected with Techbridge Girls and her role models she met through high school and college.  In May 2017, Aileen graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Applied Mathematics.  The spark that was created in combination with the ongoing support from Techbridge Girls allowed her to achieve her aspirations of a STEM career.  Aileen now works for a leading STEM corporation in their global engineering department as IT Business Analyst making over $80,000 a year.  She travels the world for fun and will be relocating to Houston, TX in the coming months for a new opportunity within the company. She now leads a life she could not have imagined before Techbridge Girls.  

We can no longer deliver these results one girl at a time.  We have to accelerate what we know best in a new model that will reach more girls and sustain their engagement throughout their most critical years.  Our vision is to create greater access points that can effectively reach girls from low-income communities and partner with schools and community-based organizations to engage their girls and to provide the resources, curriculum and/or training to deliver equitable STEM programming in their respective communities.  

Most recently, we used a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation's Advancing Informal Science Learning area to scale our afterschool programs for 4th- to 12th-grade girls across the country. Through this project, we scaled our afterschool programs from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle and then to Washington, DC. Through this effort, we served more than 2,500 girls in more than 50 schools.

Girls across our regions showed consistent outcomes, based on surveys of girls and comparison groups of girls. These outcomes included:

  • Increased knowledge of STEM careers
  • More development of social/emotional skills including persistence, problem-solving, and risk-taking
  • Greater identification with STEM as a possible career path
  • Deeper understanding of STEM practices such as the engineering design process 

Our evaluation and research also included surveys and interviews with teachers, parents, and role models who supported the girls. These groups also consistently reported being better equipped/knowledgeable to support girls’ STEM interests.

In the evaluation data from the project, we found that surrounding girls with a robust "ecosystem" of supports was almost as important as providing engaging and broad-based STEM content. These findings were codified into the “Techbridge Girls Essential Elements” (The Essentials).

In the Essentials, we identify five basic elements of high-quality, equitable STEM learning environments for helping underserved girls persist in STEM. We outline the critical ingredients in a holistic and gender- and culturally-relevant approach, with an emphasis on career exposure and supportive adults to enable girls to persist in STEM careers.

  1. Gender- and culturally-responsive STEM programming
  2. Inclusive and accessible programs
  3. Opportunities for youth empowerment
  4. Extensive career exploration
  5. A broad network of support

As we expanded our direct services to three regions of the country--the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., we also learned about what works for organizations wanting to scale and maintain high impact. Some key lessons included the need to carefully plan partnerships with schools and districts; the importance of robust staff and organizational structures which could carry out the work and were reflective of the populations we serve; and the need to ensure the adaptability of our model to the nuances of each region. We hope fellow travelers who seek to implement societal change through afterschool spaces will benefit from some of our insights as well.

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