All across Wyoming, girls are about to get excited about math and science.

Host programs in Laramie, Dayton, Rawlins, Sheridan, Jackson, Riverton and Lander will participate in a new program called MakeHER. This program is offered through the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance in 2021, and it is aimed at engaging girls in STEM education. STEM is the intentional integration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics into specific learning practices.

“We see these kinds of programs as a wonderful first step in the development of skills that really transfer into strong workforce development skills,” Michelle Sullivan, director of Wyoming Afterschool Alliance, said.

Jane Crayton, Makerspace Coordinator at the University of Wyoming, said the MakeHER program is designed to capture the attention of teenagers, and girls, in particular, across Wyoming. It will include a series of educational opportunities for the Wyoming students aged 8 to 18 who participate, and those administering the program, as well.

“Around age 11, girls are most at risk for opting out of STEM education experiences,” Crayton said. “It’s really important to start building confidence in STEM prior to that age, and definitely at that age. MakeHER is an intervention, but it will also provide students real-world experience.”

In the United States and around the globe, one specific culture or group is in charge, and has access to, being innovative, Crayton said. According to the American Association of University Women, stereotypes of male scientists, engineers and mathematicians start early, and cultural messaging may explain why girls enter STEM fields at dramatically lower rates than boys. Although women make up nearly half of all employees in the United States economy, they hold only 29 percent of STEM jobs. Girls face “math anxiety” at a rate higher than boys, the AAUW says, and this contributes to around half of the gender achievement gap in math.

Programs like the Million Girl Moonshot, which awarded funding to the Afterschool Alliance for its MakeHER pilot program, can provide opportunity to underserved, at-risk and nontraditional STEM learners in Wyoming, which is extremely important, Crayton said. The Million Girl Moonshot program, administered by the Wyoming Afterschool Alliance and funded through the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, launched MakeHER this fall as a collaboration with the University of Wyoming Coe Center for Innovation and Wyoming 4-H.

“We had eight applicants, which is perfect,” Sullivan said. “It was a really nice combination of people, too. We’re really looking at this MakeHER program to be a model that continues in other places. While we’re part of this national initiative through the Million Girls Moonshot, the MakeHER program is something that has been developed and homespun here in Wyoming through a strong and creative partnership.”

The Wyoming Afterschool Alliance will implement and host programming in each of the eight locations in the spring or summer of 2021 for youth between the ages of 8 and 18, consisting of around 30 contact hours and at least 50% female participation.

“We have to include girls and increase the participation of minorities in STEM. This program is really focused on engaging all of those people,” Crayton said.

4-H will serve as a community connection, and though many 4-H programs have scientific components, 4-H agents may not always see it, said Mary Louise Wood, a University Extension Educator and 4-H/Youth coordinator.

“If girls don’t have a connection with science, they don’t necessarily see the science in their 4-H projects. This is a way to encourage them,” Wood said. “This is not out of their realm. There are a lot of science careers that they don’t even realize are science-based. It doesn’t have to be biology or engineering.”

Through participation in MakeHER programs, students will learn problem solving skills and confidence.

“They will learn through the scientific process about problems and finding solutions,” Wood said. “Even more basically, if they have a failure, this is a safe space to fail. They’ll learn not to give up. A lot of times in society, there aren’t safe places to fail. If you fail in school, you might get labeled, but this is a safe place to learn from those experiences – to find those successes even though a project may not have turned out the way that you wanted it to.”

Sullivan said she is excited about the program for its potential to create new connections within organizing agents, but also for the potential it has to be a model for local partnerships promoting STEM education across the state after MakeHER ends.

“This is an example of where, in Wyoming, we can take something and scale it, and try it in ways that, because of our size, we have the potential to do. We can take new ideas and see how they work in a way that other places may not be able to do as well,” Sullivan said.

“Another of the things I’m excited about is that those who have applied are a very interesting combination,” she continued. “To that end, we have individuals who have never been involved with 4-H who will go through youth development training, strengthening their skills, but also those employed by wonderful community centers.”

Each of the eight programs will have the built-in ability to learn from each other, and to cross-pollinate around what is working and what is not, Sullivan said.

“We’re really hoping to encourage these programs to experiment and try new things,” she said.

And as the world recovers from the global coronavirus pandemic, but still reels from its effects, hands-on learning opportunities like those presented inside makerspaces will become more and more important.

“We want to broaden and diversify innovation,” Crayton said. “One culture, one group and one way of thinking is not going to solve our world’s problems. If we want to solve some of the largest problems facing humans right now, we are going to have to have a diverse group of people that come with a wide variety of experiences and frames of reference to solve them.

“Students need a place to get in-person work done, and have access to the things they would have if they were in the classroom,” Crayton said. “Coming to this space is a great way to engage students in STEM, and get them using the tools on a trajectory toward STEM careers.”

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