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

NGCP“These groups didn’t know how to find each other.”

In one sentence, Karen Peterson summed up the reason she helped create the National Girls Collaborative Project, a central organization that unites the myriad groups trying to cultivate girls’ interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM).

More than 12 years ago, “as we talked to people that were running programs for girls … we started hearing some similar themes. [These organizations] didn’t really have a community,” Peterson says. “They knew of each other, but there weren’t opportunities for them to get together.”

Peterson and several other women — including senior research scientist Brenda Britsch — went to the National Science Foundation with an idea to form the NGCP as a place where leaders of various groups could share knowledge and advice.

The idea won the grant, and the NGCP was formed in 2002 with the intention of bringing together the heads of organizations in the northwestern United States. It didn’t take long for the heads of similar initiatives in other parts of the country to take notice and express a desire to join.

The NGCP went to work on organizing groups throughout the country into “collaboratives,” or networks of organizations and individuals who advocate for girls in STEM.

Today, the Lynnwood, Wash., organization boasts 31 collaboratives, impacting girls in 39 states, each one’s formation marked by a kick-off party designed to bring participants together to meet and greet.

The project also forms partnerships — such as one with the Society of Women Engineers — to disseminate content. Additionally, the NGCP has instituted a mini-grant program, which awards amounts up to $1,000 to initiatives that “support collaboration, address gaps and overlaps in service, and share exemplary practices.”

And for those without a collaborative nearby, the NGCP has renovated its website and archived informative webinars so that its online presence may serve as a resource for those looking to serve STEM girls.

As the organization has grown, so have its leaders’ aspirations — particularly in regards to serving girls with even fewer opportunities in the STEM world.

Karen Peterson (L) and Brenda Britsch.

We still focus on girls [in STEM] overall, but we put extra effort into reaching organizations and educators who work with ethnic minorities, racial minorities, girls with disabilities, girls that are of low socio-economic strata, even rural girls,” says Britsch. To that aim, the NGCP has focused on setting up collaboratives in Arizona, Alabama and New Mexico, where girls of ethnic minorities or lower income brackets live.

To date, the organization’s activities and growth have been largely funded by NSF grants; after the first one expired, the organization garnered a second award in 2011, which amounted to almost $3 million. It’s a resource that the NGCP founders say has been invaluable.

Going forward, however, they are looking at other funding resources, so that NGCP can act for girls in STEM beyond the confines of goals specifically set in each grant.

Peterson says the prospect of expanding the organization’s offerings is thrilling, and she hopes it will help future generations of girls become more welcome in the STEM world. “We’ve got to figure out what’s going to make a difference, what that tipping point is,” she says. “We’ve got to keep going.”

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