Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing look at the lack of female representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. See our introductory post on the subject here.

(Credit: Facebook.com)

Every first Thursday of the month, Girlstart – a nonprofit STEM education organization — hosts “Starry Nights,” a planetarium show with varying themes and accompanying activities designed to spark girls’ interests in astronomy.

The program, held at the organization’s STEM Center in Austin, Texas, is both hands-on and interactive, to keep its young participants engaged. However, these offerings are never simplified to account for age — which, according to Dr. Tamara Hudgins, executive director of Girlstart, is a key element in their success.

“We want science to be as fun and interesting as it can possibly be, and we don’t think that it’s necessary to dumb things down simply because a child is working on them,” she says. “We dispense with worries about whether something is ‘too hard.'”

Challenging these girls in a positive way has always been a core principle of Girlstart. In 1997, the organization was founded as a means of combating the lack of female representation in Autin’s STEM workforce by fostering interest in those careers among future generations of women. Its work is accomplished thanks to the help of grants, corporate donor contributions and collaborations with nearby like-minded organizations.

From after-school programs and summer camps to conferences and its “DeSTEMber” initiative, Girlstart has brought STEM education opportunities to over 40,000 participants. Girls ranging in age from kindergarten students to 16-year-olds can take part in its year-round suite of programs. And Girlstart’s reach extends even further when its alumnae outreach efforts and resources for educators are factored into the equation.

The organization is also inspiring entrepreneurship among its participants — a fitting aspect to include in its overall mission, as Austin is one of the nation’s startup capitals. “We encourage them to think about taking their ideas to market,” Hudgins says. “Coming up with new ideas is fun. But testing them, having them be critiqued, having them fail, and developing the bravery it requires to really be present and active authors of their lives — that is a part of every STEM endeavor.”

Several girls figured out how to make a series circuit at Girlstart After School. (Credit: Facebook.com)

She continued, “They like the challenge, and they can see a future for themselves in STEM because we are giving them a pathway.”

Since its inception, the organization has developed considerably. “[We have gone] from four to 50 [schools offering our after-school program] and from eight to 27 summer camp programs [in the past five years alone] — all with very little staff increases,” Hudgins says.

In addition to growing in size, Girlstart has tracked the considerable success of Girlstart After School. The organization states that this part of its mission has increased not only interest, but acumen and confidence among girls learning about STEM as well.

“[It’s] effective … because it’s intensive, it’s consistent, it’s aligned with learning goals, and of course, because it is inquiry-based,” says Hudgins. “We see that girls in Girlstart After School are doing better on math and science standardized tests, they are taking more advanced STEM courses following their engagement with Girlstart After School, and they do better in those classes.”

Down the road, it hopes to do even more for girls interested in the STEM fields — both in Austin and beyond. “Right now, we’re putting together our next strategic plan, and it includes scale up. We want to be able to respond to any community that seeks Girlstart. We aim to go big, and we’re hopeful that we can get there.”

For a list of project posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship