MilliporeSigma Partnership Spotlight: Girlstart

Apr 14, 2021 8:35 AM ET

Since 2015, we have partnered with Girlstart, the largest and longest-running community-based informal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education nonprofit in the nation specifically dedicated to empowering and equipping girls in STEM through year-round educational programming. We have supported the organization’s national growth into Houston, Boston and St. Louis through funding the availability of summer camps and after-school programs. Now, we are helping support Girlstart’s expansion into Milwaukee and its launch of two new community STEM initiatives.

We sat down with Tamara Hudgins, executive director at Girlstart, to highlight how the organization is empowering girls in STEM.

1. Please explain what Girlstart does and its mission.

Girlstart does STEM education for girls — that’s all that we do. We are particularly interested in ensuring that girls who otherwise might not have access gain consistent and frequent access to hand-on STEM education. This is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hands-on science is a scarcity for everyone, but particularly for high-need and at-risk girls.

2. Tell us about your role at Girlstart.

I’m the executive director, which means that I get to deal with all the fun — and all the challenges. From network outages to break-ins at our building to broken laptops, I am always problem-solving. But, I get to support an incredible team of passionate people, and they get astonishing things done, including during a pandemic.

3. What STEM education programs does Girlstart offer?

Our year-round K-12 programs include Girlstart After School, Girlstart Summer Camp and Community STEM education programs. Our key areas of focus, which are also our most intensive programs, are Girlstart After School and Girlstart Summer Camp. After School is held once a week throughout the school year for fourth- and fifth-grade girls. Summer Camp is a one-week program for fourth- through eighth-grade girls. Everything we do is aligned with learning standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards. Our work is informal, hands-on and inquiry-based, and it encompasses the full STEM acronym.

4. What is the reach and impact of Girlstart?

We have grown pretty dramatically since 2010, and other than scouting or museums, I’d hazard the guess that we are directly reaching more girls than any other STEM education organization in America. We are growing so quickly because the demand for our work is very high. Further, we don’t see others in the informal STEM space stepping up to this challenge with the kind of research outcomes that our programs have. So, we feel a responsibility to bring high-quality and impactful programs to the girls that we reach.

By providing our hands-on, inquiry-based informal STEM programs, we aim to help girls increase STEM skills, knowledge and experience. We are also interested in sparking curiosity in STEM activities, courses, majors and careers. And, we want to grow their awareness of STEM careers and women who work in those fields, and their interest in pursuing those careers. We conduct pre- and post-surveys of each of our programs to understand our impact in these areas. But, while success in these goals is important, they are not the only things that we are curious about regarding our impact.

We’ve also conducted research to understand the impact of our work. We know, from repeated research studies conducted by external evaluators, that girls who participate in Girlstart After School not only perform better on their science and math tests, but they also go on to take more advanced math and science courses in middle school. This means that Girlstart girls will take Algebra 1 at the earliest possible moment. These advanced courses keep doors of opportunity open to Girlstart After School girls, and that’s particularly meaningful when you consider that 80+ percent of Girlstart After School girls are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), 75+ percent of Girlstart After School girls receive free or reduced lunch, and 30+ percent would be first-generation college students. Getting on to the advanced track in middle school means that one is more likely to continue on this path in high school, and as they progress in high school, they’ll be perceived as STEM-ready for college. The majority of girls (73 percent) who participate in our summer camp program one time graduate from college, and that percentage increases as girls enroll in more camps. Of Girlstart girls who attended camp three or more times, 85 percent graduated from college. We are eager to show that participation in Girlstart is not only fun and engaging, but that it’s a transformational experience for the girls who we have the honor to serve.

5. What feedback have you received from girls who have participated in a Girlstart initiative?

We get gracious feedback all the time. I’ll share some comments by girls, parents and principals from this summer and fall—a time when learning wasn’t considered very fun and when hands-on science learning has been decimated:

“You guys are doing a great job and providing an awesome opportunity for our kids. Thank you so much!”

          - Hamilton Park Elementary Campus Coordinator 

“If you go to Girlstart, there’s no way you won’t like it.” 

           - After School girl 

“The girls shared with me the book that you have them reading. I love it! Grateful for Girlstart!”

          - Wolf Ranch Elementary Campus Coordinator 

“Thank you soooooooooooooooooo much for all you’ve done to enrich the lives of our kids. The connections and the academic enrichment you’ve provided will last with them for a lifetime. We appreciate you partnering with us and giving our children these opportunities. Thank you so very much.”

          - Woodview Elementary Principal 

“You have done a fabulous job teaching, building independence, and engaging the girls remotely. Can you give some pointers to school districts for next school year’s online learning?”

          - Summer Camp at Home parent

"By far the most engaging and fun camp we've participated. My daughter couldn't wait to launch the video conversation each morning and to start her next project. She was fully comfortable using the technology and engaging with the other campers and STEM crew. What an incredible way to expose STEM to these young girls. Excellent job Girlstart and thank you!"

          - Summer Camp at Home parent

















6. Girlstart first launched in Texas. Why did you find it important to expand to other markets?

Our wait list is more than 80 districts in Texas and 23 states. When we began to scale, we first did so organically (2010-14). Then, we decided to get serious about fundamentally understanding what true scale would take (2015-17) within Texas. And then, our 2018-20 strategic plan included year-round scale up outside of Texas. We know that 100 percent of girls are underserved in STEM, and there are high-need girls everywhere. So, what we are looking for is a strong community that can embrace and appreciate informal STEM, has sufficient college students for us to hire (college students, whom we call the STEM CREW, lead our programs), and that has a complex enough system of philanthropy that our emergence in a given community would not be disruptive for other nonprofits. We have analyzed the top 20-40 metropolitan statistical areas in order to determine where would be the best fits for a year-round scale of Girlstart After School and Girlstart Summer Camp. The Bay Area and the Boston area were among our top contenders. After the pandemic is less of a disruptor for day-to-day existence, we’ll get back to scaling up in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the North Carolina Triangle area. And maybe, if we have the stamina, another new community as well. We’re excited to be able to reach communities such as St. Louis and Milwaukee through our Summer Camp program, thanks to our partnership with MilliporeSigma.

7. What is one skill you think is valuable to have when working in the nonprofit sector?

I think resilience is one of the key things that drives success in the nonprofit sector. With more than 25 years of experience, I’ve learned from a great many nonprofit challenges, and those deepest and most complex challenges have allowed me to help Girlstart be nimble, responsive and strong today.

8. How has MilliporeSigma’s partnership with Girlstart supported the organization’s mission?

MilliporeSigma’s impact on our organization has been, and remains, profound. MilliporeSigma was among the first to notice Girlstart’s promise and ability to scale. Their steadfast and continued support has meant that Girlstart has been strong in Central Texas, where there are employees; in Houston, where there is also a presence; in St. Louis; in the Boston area, and soon, in Milwaukee. Their support has not only helped us scale, but it has also helped others see that Girlstart is an organization that aspires to scale and serve more girls, and that our model is effective and consistently delivers strong results.

MilliporeSigma’s leadership is at the backbone of our ability to stretch, grow and reach girls in communities we never thought were possible. I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that MilliporeSigma was going to make our scale-up into the Boston area a reality (good thing I pulled to the side of the road!). We aim to continue serving those communities that MilliporeSigma cares about, first, because they cared about us first. We are ridiculously grateful to the MilliporeSigma team who has made our work possible. Thank you!

9. What has been the most rewarding part of your role at Girlstart?

The most rewarding part is one of two things. One, the research outcomes we’ve demonstrated. Consistently and over time, Girlstart girls outperform and aim higher in science and math, and that is very important for us and for me (as a recovering academic). But two, consistently and over time, Girlstart girls and the STEM CREW stay connected to us. As alumni, they manifest what our programs are all about. When Girlstart girls go to colleges where we have programs, they come work for us as part of the STEM CREW. As STEM CREW, they’re young women in STEM who are themselves role models, but who also appreciate connections to our corporate leaders with female STEM professionals who can mentor and help them as they emerge from college to a career. We are seeing Girlstart girls become STEM CREW, go into a STEM career, and then have daughters of their own. Girlstart alumna, Christa Cook — an epidemiologist on the forefront of the pandemic in Texas — participated in our programs in Round Rock, Texas (where MilliporeSigma has a facility). When she went to The University of Texas at Austin for college, she became part of the STEM CREW and led our After School and Summer Camp programs. Now, as an epidemiologist for the state of Texas, she’s also a Girlstart mom — though her daughter is still too young to come to Girlstart, but it won’t be long before we’ll welcome Christa’s daughter, too. So, it’s the combination of the things I know that speak to my head and to my heart that make me honored to work as part of such a great team.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to share what Girlstart has been doing since March 2020. Our team has moved mountains in order to ensure that girls continue to have ready and frequent access to hands-on, inquiry-based STEM education, despite the pandemic. Our Summer Camp at Home and After School at Home programs have ensured access to tools, supplies, and engaging, synchronous programming that have continued to foster their STEM learning. In summer 2020, we reached MORE girls than ever before, and in the fall, we sustained our work to all 84 Girlstart After School partner schools. We expanded our virtual learning opportunities through, and our 10th annual DeSTEMber program complements this virtual programming. Our team has redefined a paradigm for engaged learning despite the screen, and thanks to MilliporeSigma, we’re continuing to serve girls in areas where MilliporeSigma has its hubs across the U.S.