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How Cookies and Rockets Changed My Life – Girl Scouts and STEM

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I was named CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA in 2017. It’s truly an honor to lead this organization that made such an impact on my life and on the lives of 50 million alums across the country and the world. In 2018, research showed that less than one percent of Silicon Valley leadership was Latina. So how did I get to be one of those leaders? What in my life prepared me with the courage and confidence to take on leadership roles and thrive?

Portrait of Brownie Girl Scout Sylvia Acevedo

All my grandparents are from Mexico. I grew up in poverty on a dirt street in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where my family struggled paycheck to paycheck.  We had to live with another family during a particularly difficult time financially, and the area we lived in was so poor and the hygiene was so bad that the last meningitis epidemic that swept America ran through our neighborhood. So how did that person become the person I am today?

The answer is that thanks to organizations like Girl Scouts and the volunteers who helped me discover a love of space and astronomy, I had the fundamental tools and skills to be successful. A person like me wasn’t supposed to grow up to be a rocket scientist, work at NASA, go to Stanford, or build a career in tech. But I am someone who did all of that.

Sylvia moving to the next level of Girl Scouts at the Bridging ceremony.

So before I go into how girls—and specifically Girl Scouts—are truly the hope for our collective STEM future, I want to share with you my Girl Scouting experience and how it really laid the foundation for my success as a STEM professional, a rocket scientist, an engineer, and a tech entrepreneur. My Girl Scout story shows what can happen when a curious young girl is given the opportunity to find her voice, cultivate her passions, and discover powers she didn’t know she had.

I like to say my first years were spent in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, since I was born at Ellsworth Air Force Base, where my father was stationed during his tour of duty as an Army officer. It was such a special place and being close to such an iconic American symbol instilled in me a strong element of patriotism that runs really deep. Growing up, I loved running around outside, riding my bike with the wind in my face, playing on the swing and monkey bars. My favorite television shows were about girls who had adventures, who did the same things as boys. But I didn’t know any girls like that in real life. Girl Scouts is where I finally met them.

 

Sylvia with her Girl Scout troop
It was at Girl Scouts that I learned about teamwork and getting along with different types of people.

I learned to be creative, enterprising, and persistent. I came out of my shell and built self-confidence and resilience. It’s where I first discovered my passion for space and astronomy, when my troop leader noticed my fascination with the night sky on a troop camping trip and pointed out the stars and constellations to me. She later encouraged me to earn my science badge, which I did by building and launching an Estes Rocket, after much trial and error. It was such a challenge figuring out how to overcome gravity’s pull. After many tries, I finally, successfully launched the rocket into the New Mexico sky. I felt such a sense of accomplishment.

I took away something so powerful from that experience: I can do science! I can do math! It was because of the interest I’d sparked at Girl Scouts that I started taking science and math electives in school. I went on to study engineering and realize my dream of becoming a rocket scientist and have the incredible experience of working at NASA, where I was doing interesting, challenging work—serious math and physics. Girl Scouts was a real turning point for me, but it wasn’t until I was older that I understood why.

The first program I worked on at NASA was called the Solar Polar Solar Probe (renamed the Parker Solar Probe). My job was to help figure out the payload and testing equipment that would be carried on a spacecraft going to the sun. I also worked on the Voyager 2 mission, which at the time was passing by Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa. This was a long-range program, which continues to this day, sending automated spacecraft to outer planets to record data and send it back to Earth. There were incredible images coming back from Jupiter and its moons that we had never seen before. It was an amazing time to be at NASA.

After the Voyager 2 had gone by Jupiter, I realized that it was going to take years before it went to the next planet, and the next project I was on was going to take decades. At that point, I realized that I was ready to go get my master’s at Stanford, and once I had that, I had the background to pursue a career in Silicon Valley.

It was the confidence I developed as a young Girl Scout that enabled me to do something that not a lot of girls were doing at the time—study engineering. That’s why Girl Scouts was such a game changer for me and continues to be a game changer for girls today. It was my inflection point. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for Girl Scouts. The interesting thing is that it was only about twelve years ago that I pieced together how transformative the Girl Scout experience was for me.

I got a call from somebody in the archives department at Stanford University. They were doing a study to find out how it was that I was one of the first Hispanics (male or female) to have gotten their graduate engineering degree from Stanford. She asked if my parents were rich ranchers or college professors. She asked how I knew about Stanford since they had not recruited in my part of the country. And she wondered how I was prepared for such a rigorous course of study. How did I have the academic background to not only get into Stanford, but to excel?

This conversation led to a kind of “a-ha” moment for me when it became clear why I was able to succeed: it all went back to my foundational experience as a Girl Scout, because while I didn’t have a lot of advantages in life, Girl Scouts was the one big advantage I did have. My Girl Scout experience exposed me to new subjects and encouraged me to explore the world around me. It taught me how to be prepared so I could create my own opportunities. And it taught me to persevere—to create a plan, to regroup when things go off-course, to learn from failure, and to try again. My pursuit of engineering and rocket science is a direct result of my Girl Scout experience.

That perseverance and resilience really served me well as I moved through my career. When I was starting out at NASA in the late seventies there weren’t many women there. And when I got my master’s and made the jump to Silicon Valley, there were even fewer women! At so many moments in my career I’ve found myself faced with—and then breaking through—these artificial barriers that had been erected by those on the inside.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about how a more diverse work culture would have broadened the opportunities available to me and others—and would have improved the actual outcomes of the work. Inclusion is a core principle of a thriving organization. It is essential to build an inclusive workforce, as many of the toughest problems are solved today by teams that include gender, ethnic, and thought diversity.

And it isn’t just good for companies—it’s a national imperative. It is key to America’s competitive strength and our national defense and protection. The more perspectives we have, the fewer blind spots there are—and the quicker corrections can be made. In short, more diverse voices at the table lead to results that are better for more people.

Because we all know there are blind spots in tech! Think about the Apple Health app. It’s great, it helps us keep track of our sleep patterns, our heart rate, and our activity level. But for women, who represent half the population, there’s one thing it didn’t do when it launched, which was to track something fundamental to our health: our menstrual cycle. That was certainly a bug not a feature, and it happened because there were no women in that room when the app was developed. And how about the Wii weight tracker that didn’t even include pregnancy as an option for why the user might be gaining weight? That’s an easy thing to code!

 

Some effects of the lack of diversity in tech are more insidious.

A recent New York Times piece called “What Women Know About the Internet” lays out what happens when you have a tech workforce that is only 25 percent female coupled with a shortage of female digital policymakers. As the article states, “the internet was not designed for women.” For male readers, this story might have been eye opening. Not for women. We all know it’s true.

Several studies have found that women worry more about privacy risks online than men. They are more likely to keep their profiles private and delete unwanted contacts to avoid making themselves a target. Women know very well what can happen, for example, on social media platforms like Twitter.

The author herself talked about the harassment leveled against her via tweet and DM that apparently never violated Twitter’s terms of service. She ended up tightening her privacy settings, she stopped sharing personal updates, and she deleted photos of her children. The fact that a platform like Twitter enables targeted harassment of women like this with no action taken against the harasser means it is the woman’s problem to solve. This serious issue could have been mitigated with more women holding positions of power in tech and sitting in those rooms where impactful decisions are made about digital privacy.

Here’s another example of troubling tech: just this past spring, Google and Apple were criticized strongly for offering a Saudi Arabian smartphone app that allows husbands to track their wives. Tracking is legal there, and the country’s “male guardianship system” requires women to obtain male approval for certain actions. Google said it would not remove the app.

These examples are exactly why we need more women with decision-making power in tech, and it makes me believe more strongly in the critical need for girls to be not just users of technology, but active creators, designers, and developers. A more inclusive community at sites like Twitter and companies like Google and Apple—and in the tech industry more broadly—would help clean up of some of the more poisonous corners of internet culture for women.

This is where Girl Scouts comes in as a force for good. Because of the huge need for more gender balance in tech, it’s critical that we cultivate a diverse talent pool and that we encourage girls from a young age to embrace STEM and all the opportunities available. I’m so excited to be in a position to ensure that the next generation of the female workforce doesn’t face the same artificial barriers that I faced, and that the future female tech workforce enters an industry that is more welcoming to them.

So, what is Girl Scouts doing to ensure more STEM opportunities are available to more girls? Our core mission is to build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place—and we take that mission seriously. We’re the experts in engaging girls in fun, relevant programs in STEM, the outdoors, life skills, and entrepreneurialism. Therefore, it only makes sense for us to take on the task of preparing girls for careers in tech fields.

 

What’s New

Want to change the world?

This past summer we launched exciting new programming that includes 42 new badges in everything from coding to app development, cybersecurity, game design, and outdoor high adventure. Since we launched our first round of cybersecurity badges in fall 2018, girls have earned nearly 87,000 badges. That comes out to about 9,500 badges a month! This year, girls have earned nearly 700,000 outdoor badges and nearly 700,000 STEM badges. Just incredible numbers! The fact is, girls want the STEM programming we are offering. They’re engaged, they’re inspired, and they’re having a great time learning these new skills.

And our outcomes for girls in the STEM space are amazing. A recent report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, Decoding the Digital Girl, finds that Girl Scouts stand out from their non–Girl Scout peers—both boys and girls—as digital leaders. For this report, which surveyed nearly 2,900 girls and boys ages 5–17, as well as their parents, the working definition of a “digital leader” incorporates not only what a person knows but how they use their knowledge. True digital leaders have more than knowledge, confidence, and capability; they also embrace new opportunities, love to learn new things, help others build expertise and confidence through tech, and look critically at the information they consume online.

The report finds that Girl Scouts are more likely to be digital leaders than boys and non-Girl Scout girls—64 percent of Girl Scouts, compared to 50 percent of boys and 43 percent of non–Girl Scout girls. In particular, Girl Scouts stand out with regard to their ability to problem solve and find reliable information online, discover new talents and interests through technology, and take action by using technology to create.

This is our country’s tech pipeline. We are filling in gaps to expose girls in communities across America to STEM, robotics, and cybersecurity.

But we want to do more with our amazing scale and reach, which is why we announced the STEM Pledge, our bold initiative to add 2.5 million girls to the pipeline by 2025. The STEM Pledge will benefit councils locally by building a STEM ecosystem that will help them deliver more girls in STEM and keep them engaged over time. These ecosystems will be fueled by collaborative partnerships with universities, corporations and others. It will also include Girl Scouts STEM Centers of Excellence, STEM Mobile Units, and training for volunteers to deliver national STEM programming to girls across the country and STEM strategists at each of our 111 councils that cover every zip code. By offering all girls high-quality, progressive STEM programs in three key STEM areas—engineering, computer science, and the outdoors—we can increase girls’ interest, confidence, and competence in STEM content, as well as their understanding of STEM’s value to society.

I’m so excited about the prospects for this initiative and what it can offer our country’s girls. They can learn to think like a programmer, to understand their technology devices in a way that enables them to be not just the users but the creators and the inventors of the next generations of devices, as well as the designers, the entrepreneurs, the lawyers, and the marketers.

And girls are already doing amazing things in the STEM space. Girl Scouts in Texas are building custom drones and using them to deliver Girl Scout Cookie boxes. They are learning about drone assembly and delivery and they even flew through an obstacle course with and without First-Person View. This is our tech talent pipeline.

High school Girl Scouts in Eastern Massachusetts were challenged to use what they learned in our computer programming curriculum to create a project that would make a sustainable improvement in their communities. They developed an app concept that would provide freshmen at their school with key information and maps to help them navigate the school and acclimate more quickly. This is our tech talent pipeline.

A Girl Scout robotics team from Eastern Oklahoma, the Supergirls, invented a battery-operated page-turner for people with arthritis, who are paralyzed, and who don’t have arms, when they were just six years old. They’ve gone on to design additional unique inventions, including a “smart trashcan” that’s prompted via motion sensor to ask whether an article is truly trash or can be recycled, and a water-saving shower head that slows to a trickle while a person shampoos her hair, keeping the water warm for when it’s time to rinse. This is our tech talent pipeline.

I want to invite you to join us in fueling this pipeline with more girls, from more communities across the country. Become a member, volunteer your time, and make a real impact. Invest in Girl Scouts so we can continue to deliver a strong, diverse STEM workforce in the 21st century. Encourage your companies to partner with us to support the development of more STEM programming.

Although we develop our programs so that volunteers without a STEM background can deliver them, we also need STEM volunteers with subject matter expertise—for example to help girls earn our incredible new Girl Scout badges in cybersecurity, coding, and space science. Episodic volunteers can also augment our program by providing real-world examples or adding additional content. And they are also role models for girls. It’s so important for girls to learn from those who are working in STEM professions. Mentors are indispensable—and they don’t all have to be women either.

I invite everyone to become a Girl Scout STEM volunteer.

Visit girlscouts.org, find your local council, and let them know you want to help build tomorrow’s STEM leaders.

The future of STEM is Girl Scouts. Join us! Together we will make the world a better place.

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2 comments

ebyjeeby December 11, 2019 at 4:20 pm

Wow, amazing story, good for you! I admire you! I recently got into amateur astronomy and envy your time at NASA!

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AffiliateLabz February 15, 2020 at 10:34 pm

Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

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