Monday December 10, 2012 0 comments
By Katrina Pfannkuch
FORT COLLINS -- For decades, men have taken the lead in careers concentrated in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
And as the importance of these career fields continues to grow, the United States is reaching a critical tipping point for inspiring young women to consider similar career paths or face limited opportunities.
Women are cutting themselves off from 75 percent of all potentially lucrative job opportunities in these rapidly growing fields, according to Heidi Olinger, founder and CEO of Pretty Brainy.
Olinger started her company to inspire young girls to strive for their goals and lead with confidence through their unique skills. Her initial focus was a socially responsible fashion line that features positive, empowering messages for young girls focused on the "cool factor" of being a smart woman.
Today, Pretty Brainy has evolved into an educational leader for STEM education, which focuses on getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math through artistic and creative inspiration -- including fashion design.
In other words, Olinger is adding the artistic, creative aspect to math and science-based learning to create STEAM - a formula that really works in getting girls ages 10 and older interested in what are often considered "boring, brainy topics."
According to the Pretty Brainy website, girls who are competent in basic college math open themselves up to 75 percent more career options. The company is attempting to bridge the gap between how tweens and teens see themselves in the world, how they regard school, how they pursue their passions and to persuade them not to give up on their ambitions because they think science is boring or they cannot do math.
Olinger hosts workshops for girls to experience STEM learning first-hand through a unique program called FashionablyMashed, offered in schools and nonprofits throughout the U.S., including the Boys and Girls Club of America and the Girl Scouts of America.
FashionablyMashed combines creativity with STEM learning in a real-world application project that requires girls to collaborate and work as a team to get things done.
"We want to ignite interest in STEM educators and students, especially girls, so they can build problem-solving, decision-making and critical-thinking skills," says Olinger. "We want to inspire girls into creating technology, not just working with what already exists."
A recent FashionablyMashed program participant, Ciera Dykstra, designed a "Save the World" T-shirt concept from start to finish.
"I've had some amazing experiences through Pretty Brainy, and this workshop has opened so many doors for me and the other girls," Dykstra said. "It really showed me how many careers use STEM.
"I've also learned a lot of marketing skills and how science, engineering, technology and math can be intertwined with careers such as fashion," she added. "Pretty Brainy helps girls learn so much more than how to make clothes - we learn useful life-long skills, and the projects help girls open up to new ideas and meet new people."
Olinger says she sees the power in presenting girls with real-world questions through an actual hands-on project that they need to "do the math" in order to achieve key project milestones.
"The more we can do to get girls to understand how arts are interconnected with math, science and technology, the more we can inspire them to pursue those careers and innovate within them," she said.
"We want to get girls further - faster -- and get STEM learning in their heads and hearts while empowering them through ownership of a project. I've seen first-hand how art is the door to leveraging STEM education, because it provides an angle of relation for girls to learn about key concepts and in a hands-on way," adds Olinger.
"We also use 100 percent of the profits from clothing sales earned through a project to fund STEM scholarships."
STEM learning at Preston
One of the biggest challenges is making sure educators have information on STEM to lead girls effectively in choosing lucrative, fulfilling careers.
According to Tracey Winey, Preston Middle School media specialist, Preston incorporated STEM learning six years ago. Winey said she feels it's critical to engage middle school students with answering real-world questions, including, "What are you doing to make the world better?"
Winey said she believes all middle school students have the ability to solve these kinds of global problems but need to know that their skills and ideas have a direct impact and matter.
"When I met Heidi in 2011, she volunteered to teach FashionablyMashed to our girls participating in Lego Robotics," she said. "The girls designed and printed a T-shirt for the Lego Robotics Competition, but so much more happened. Science, economics, mathematics and digital literacy standards were all integrated into the experience. They were so proud of the end product. After that seminar, I knew Preston would have a long-standing relationship with Pretty Brainy.
"Heidi and Pretty Brainy provide a service that was missing at Preston. Her efforts truly support and encourage girls to thrive in STEM fields, and offers girls everywhere an opportunity for advancement by helping them learn and develop through creativity," Winey said.
Pretty Brainy's future
Olinger's vision for Pretty Brainy is to lay groundwork research demonstrating the impact of STEM learning.
"We are beginning to work with the University of Northern Colorado's Department of Applied Mathematics to gather the funding for a research project to track girls and the interest and sustained STEM studies of math through middle school and into college," she said.
"In addition, we are collaborating with Colorado State University's Department of Mechanical Engineering on a common mission -- to start STEM mentorship in elementary school and carry it through college and professional level careers.
"Mentorship in math, science and technology from a successful career woman is not enough because there are simply not enough people to go around," Olinger said. "What we need to be doing is creating mentors for the future. We need girls to showcase their intelligence --not downplay it to fit in."