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10/10/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2013

Gravity Dominates at Box Office, Proves Girls Rule Too?

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Engaging the next generation of women scientists

It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Gravity, a movie about two astronauts stranded in space, just claimed the top spot at the box office on its opening weekend and is getting early Oscar buzz for its female lead, America's darling Sandra Bullock. Even though he was just eliminated, ABC's Dancing with the Stars fan favorite celebrity participant this season was beloved TV science man Bill Nye the Science Guy. And Facebook COO and bestselling author Sheryl Sandberg was featured in a recent interview on CBS This Morning rallying people around the need to recruit more women for tech careers. In her interview, Sandberg summed it up nicely when she said, "you can't be what you can't see."

What Sandberg was referring to is the fact that while making up about half the workforce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs and hold a low share of the STEM degrees. This underrepresentation has been pervasive and persistent for decades. Without being exposed to female role models, how can a young girl, and society, expect to understand who a scientist is, who can be a scientist and what a scientist does? As Sandberg so simply points out, you can't be what you can't see.

This information, combined with societal and media stereotypes perpetuating the idea that women (especially minority women) should not be interested in science fields, further solidifies the need for programs that create communities among like-minded girls and introduces them at a young age to female role models. This gives them the confidence and vision to pursue their STEM dreams. These are the basic tenants on which I started Project Scientist, a non-profit that seeks to engage girls with a passion for STEM. Through hands on exploration, education and career counseling, mentoring and internships, our girls discover the endless opportunities available to them.

An important part of Project Scientist is the newly created Project Scientist Academy, a summer camp for girls, ages 4-12, held on a university campus where students are immersed in a STEM experience. This is accomplished through a tailored curriculum facilitated by highly skilled and credentialed educators, field trips that align with current lessons, and interactions with female STEM professionals from a variety of fields to help the young girl "campers" discover the endless opportunities available to them.

We recently released several key findings from the data collected over this past summer's Academy. Our data demonstrates that in less than a week of working with like-minded girls and being exposed to female role models, girls' attitudes and perceptions immediately began to shift.

Based on that research, we've put together our Top 5 ways to create a successful program to nurture girls' passion for STEM.

1. Expose girls to real-life female scientists.
In keeping that it's hard to be what you can't see, current female scientists play a critical role in helping shape and expand a young girl's understanding about what a scientist looks like. Over the course of four weeks the Project Scientist Academy had more than 25 female mentors interact with campers in person or via Skype to either lead a field-specific experiment or talk about their profession and answer questions. These interactions helped shift a girl's perception. For example, when asked to draw a scientist girls went from drawing a picture of a male scientist at the beginning of the week to, in many cases, drawing a picture of themselves in a profession introduced through one of the female role models. Facilitating these interactions is not only of value for young girls, but mentors walk away feeling revived in their passion for their work and knowing that they made an impact on inspiring girls towards pursuing their interest in STEM.

2. Visit or conduct classes in a real lab setting at a university or business.
Hands-on and experiential learning is one of the best ways to capture the minds and interest of young girls. In addition, holding a program in a real lab setting at a university or business provides girls the confidence and vision to actually see themselves as a student in a university science lab or as a scientist. This also helps extend a program beyond just being a summer camp, and into being a full-fledge educational experience.

3. Maintain a diverse student population.
Through a partnership with the Duke Energy Foundation and The NASCAR Foundation we were able to extend scholarships to nine students from low-income, Hispanic and African-American populations. In the same way that it is important for young girls to see female scientists in order to be able to visualize themselves as a STEM field one day, these underrepresented groups of girls need to be introduced to role models and peers with whom they can relate. Building communities for girls of all backgrounds will not only give them an additional boost in confidence, but also the added benefit of uniting these groups of professional women within the corporate and academic worlds.

4. Utilize passionate, trained and skilled teachers.
It takes using trained, skilled and currently active teachers who are the most passionate and enthusiastic about teaching STEM to help develop an engaging and relevant curriculum. This helps not only provide the best educational experience possible for girls, but also gives the teachers an opportunity to learn tips, tricks and best practices to take back to their schools and classrooms, therefore reaching an even larger population of students.

5. Engage parents and family members in a girl's STEM interests.
It is important that a girl's passion for STEM continues to be nurtured at home. At Project Scientist we invite parents to our weekly graduation ceremonies where our girls do presentations of some of their projects from camp. We also engage parents through regular communication and providing tools and resources for talking to their daughters about STEM. This might even come in the form of helping parents support their daughters by heading outside for a nature walk or finding a local museum with science exhibits.

With its adult-heavy content Gravity is likely not a movie young girls are going to see in significant numbers, but the fact that it features a female astronaut in the lead role is a step towards Hollywood helping reshape society's image of a scientist. And while we know that Hollywood often plays an important role in shaping and reflecting societal perceptions, research tells us that the most influential role models for young girls are the every day women they encounter in their lives -- their mom, a relative, even the neighbor down the street. It takes a community of positive female STEM professionals -- as well as peers, parents, neighbors and teachers -- to have the greatest impact on nurturing girls' passion for the sciences.

At Project Scientist we will continue to share our research and best practices with the greater STEM community to help further teacher development and reach more girls around the country. Together we can help girls view a scientist not as a gender-specific role, but a career option that is open to everyone.

To read our full paper outlining the recent research from our girls' Academy, please visit www.projectscientist.org.

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