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Girls Scouts launches new badges in robotics and cyber security

Even adults are excited about earning these badges 

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Tuesday 25 July 2017 22:59 BST
A Girl Scout badge for learning how to program a robot is seen atop a sample of new badges focused on science, technology, engineering and math in Owings Mills, Md. The new group of 23 badges takes a progressive approach to STEM and also nudges girls to become citizen scientists using the great outdoors as their laboratory. 21 July 2017
A Girl Scout badge for learning how to program a robot is seen atop a sample of new badges focused on science, technology, engineering and math in Owings Mills, Md. The new group of 23 badges takes a progressive approach to STEM and also nudges girls to become citizen scientists using the great outdoors as their laboratory. 21 July 2017 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“Work like engineers to plan and build a prototype of your robot that solves an everyday problem.”

This is not a directive for a science class or a robotics competition, but a new opportunity for Girl Scouts across the country to learn about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, which have had historically low female and minority representation.

The Girl Scouts are offering a new suite of badges for young girls and women to earn in robotics, use of technology to explore nature, and even and cyber security in an effort “to prepare them for the world they will soon lead”.

The 23 new badges offered in 2017 include designing model cars and roller coasters, learning to write code in order to program robots, creating algorithms, and using various apps and devices to collect useful data about the natural environment like patterns of climate change, tree growth, types of bugs in a child’s backyard, or monitoring bird migrations.

“We polled several girls and asked what they wanted to learn,” Sylvia Acevedo, a woman who “bleeds green,” and the CEO of Girl Scouts USA told The Independent.

Making separate robotics badges was not too much of a surprise given the 105-year-old organisation’s focus on “making” and “hands on learning”.

The Girl Scouts count about 2 million members and 59 million alumnae, with nearly half of all American women having been involved in the organisation at some point in her life.

However, it is a mostly white organisation though “nearly half of girls aged 5 to 17 in the US are now ethnic minorities, up from 38 percent in 2000,” as The Atlantic reported.

The organisation has been losing members of late and the new push for STEM and Ms Acevedo’s own appointment as the group’s first Latina CEO is a sign that the organisation recognises the need to “reach the new American girl”.

Ms Acevedo noted that in 2017 nearly 500,000 scouts are considered “low-income,” with nearly 200,000 Latina and Hispanic Scouts.

She said: “you would be hard-pressed to find an organisation with our reach.”

Ms Acevedo herself is a literal rocket scientist, having spent time working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, IBM, and Dell.

It followed suit that when she became CEO she would carry that experience and mentor scouts of all ages to be able to follow in a similar STEM path.

Women already working in STEM fields like Shilpa Chakravarthy, Lead Systems Engineer and Product Owner at the Boeing Company, told The Independent that the idea of new STEM badges is “fantastic”.

To allow young girls to “not only develop an interest in STEM, but also allow them to normalise the idea of working with other female peers that share the same interest” is a key factor for Ms Chakravarthy’s enthusiasm for the new badges.

The issue however, is bringing an opportunity to earn these STEM badges to rural and urban low income areas where girls may not have access to female STEM troop leaders or mentors.

That is why the Girl Scouts worked with corporate partners and “subject matter experts to create and curate the content” for requirements Scouts will need to meet in order to earn the badges.

Some corporate partners included GoldieBlox, an interactive toy company akin to LEGO but geared towards girls to foster an early interest engineering, and the Society of Women Engineers., a nonprofit that works in public schools to teach computer science essentials to underrepresented minorities and low-income students, was also a key partner in developing the coding curriculum and requirements for the robotics badges.

To help troop leaders, Girl Scouts has designed the badges’ requirements so that much of it can be done “unplugged,” said Ms Acevedo.

She also explained that many local councils will have “resource centres,” particularly in areas where troops cannot afford expensive smartphones, computer equipment, or other tools.

Troops will be able to go to these centres to rent equipment and get volunteer help from local engineers and scientists.

There will also be “Girl Scout libraries” available with kits for equipment and instruction in areas where resource centers may not be able to be set up right away.

District councils will have to do recruit volunteers and do fundraising in order to make this all a reality, but Ms Acevedo said when Girl Scouts began reaching out to corporate partners for the content companies and organisations were just as excited as the girls to work on the badges.

Jessica Blaemire, a Manassas, Virginia troop leader told The Independent she and her co-leader will certainly implement the new robotics badges into their plan for the upcoming year, adding “I love this push” for more STEM.

Ms Blaemire said her troop completed a badge for which the “girls designed various inventions to help them solve problems” previously and that the robotics badge would be building upon the skills learned from that.

She hopes to “get our girls outdoors as much as possible” and plans on incorporating some of the new STEM badges on a camping weekend.

“Having the girl-led focus always helps- any badge where they do the brainstorming and planning lets them take ownership of what they create,” she explained.

One surprising element to come out of the survey however, was that girls voted "loud and clear, to learn about computer science, and, specifically, cybersecurity."

Given the current news in the world about the US election and email hacking, however, the girls surveyed seemed to have a finger on the pulse of the world.

“America has to compete in the tech savvy, global workforce” going forward, and so the Girl Scouts has to “keep moving at the speed of girl,” Ms Acevedo said.

At least 18 new cyber security badges will be offered beginning in the fall of 2018 in partnership with Silicon Valley-based Palo Alto Networks.

“The cyber security industry is facing a talent deficit...and women comprise only 11 per cent of today’s cyber security workforce,” Rinki Sethi, Senior Director of Information Security at the company, told The Independent about how the partnership came about.

The industry has had a dearth of talent for the past decade, but Ms Sethi hopes that catching the interest of girls in Kindergarten and up will ensure a better future for the industry as a whole.

As Ms Chakravarthy pointed out: “If more of these types of programmes emphasised the importance of STEM growing up, I would have probably garnered an interest in [the STEM field] much earlier and may have had more of a leg up amongst my peers.”

Ms Sethi said the “lack of diversity” in the cyber security industry can also be tackled by working with Girl Scouts “to eliminate the barriers that typically prevent young girls from diving into STEM fields - like gender, geography, and access to STEM education”.

The content is still being developed and will include “online safety and age-appropriate” hacking and even weekend-long hackathons to solve big problems, according to Ms Sethi and the Girl Scouts.

The badges, which all focus on “everyday ways” to use STEM will be “available in every zip code in America,” Ms Acevedo said.

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