November 29, 2016

Greenlight for Girls: Finding the STEM Leaders of the Future

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Greenlight for Girls
Melissa Rancourt describes Greenlight for Girls, a non-profit organization with a mission to provide girls around the world with the opportunity to love STEM.

There is growing anxiety within tech companies about the lack of skilled professionals to keep up with demand. There’s also a realization that one of the largest untapped resources is women. A keynote at the recent Embedded Linux Conference Europe in Berlin described a potential solution to the challenge called Greenlight for Girls, a non-profit organization with a mission to provide girls around the world with the opportunity to love STEM.

The problem is that many girls who have a natural talent for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are often steered elsewhere by teachers, parents, peers, and stereotypes reinforced by the media. A recent National Science Foundation report claimed that more than twice as many U.S. men than women attend graduate school in computer science, and more than four times as many men are enrolled in engineering. While gender discrimination continues to be a problem in hiring, a greater challenge is that relatively few girls get hooked on STEM at an early age and then stick with it.

At ELCE, Greenlight for Girls project founder Melissa Rancourt and International Project Manager Jelena Lucin explained how their organization sponsors hands-on STEM workshops and events for girls around the world, often led by role-model volunteers from industry.

Rancourt has been a computer engineer for 20 years. “I love everything about it, from programming to all the science and math behind it, so I’m constantly amazed that not everybody gets how fabulous this is,” Rancourt told the ELCE audience. “For 20 years I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to get women and girls interested in STEM, but really it was just pissing me off because the numbers aren’t changing. In some fields, the number of women was even going down.”

Several years ago, Rancourt decided to address the problem on a larger scale. She sent off an email blast to gauge interest in launching an organization that promotes STEM education among girls, and was overwhelmed with the favorable response. Within the first year, Greenlight for Girls launched with an international board of directors, more than 500 volunteers, and 1,000 participating girls. Today, the group has grown to 2,500 volunteers serving 13,000 students. So far, there have been 90 events held on six continents.

“We go into the classrooms and into the community, and provide scholarships and libraries,” explained Rancourt, who mentioned projects including robotics, routers, rocket science, telepresence, Arduino hacking, and the physics of playing rugby. “We have role models who come together and show how STEM is linked to everything,” she said. The group also provides girls with free meals, which can make a big difference in many communities.

Greenlight for Girls decided it was important to start working with girls at an early age. “It’s never too early to incite a passion for science,” said Rancourt. “Some school systems put kids in boxes pretty quickly, and it’s easy to veer off the STEM path. Once you’re off the path, it’s so difficult get back on.”

Global Reach

The group’s global reach has led to a flexible approach based on local needs. “In our first group in the Congo, they asked to change the format to cover things the kids could do in their community to make a difference, so we changed the workshops to orient to their needs,” said Rancourt. Even in the U.S. where girls have easier access to technology, there’s a need for programs like Greenlight for Girls, she added. “In Silicon Valley we have had parents tell us that they don’t have anything like this in the area.”

Decisions about where to launch new groups often come from the program’s sponsors, which contribute volunteers and equipment. “We ask our global partners like Cisco, AIG, Swift, and Proctor & Gamble, where they need to build a workforce, and then we see if we can set up a program there,” said Rancourt. “We have new city launches every two weeks.”

The group has now been around long enough that Rancourt and Lucin are beginning to see results. “We have so many wonderful stories about kids who stay with it,” said Rancourt. “One 14-year-old created an app, and we went with her to Apple for the launch.”

Yet, the impact of Greenlight for Girls goes beyond the girls who are inspired to find a career in STEM. “The passion we encourage in them will let them ignore the ‘nos’ and keep on going,” said Rancourt. “One child can change a lot in a community.”

Watch the complete presentation below:

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