By Sam Piha
Last spring, President Obama stated emphatically that, “Emphasizing STEM education—especially to girls and minority students–is one of the most important efforts the U.S. can make if it hopes to produce college- and career-ready students”. Linda Kekelis, Executive Director of Techbridge, a local STEM afterschool program for girls, is a leading innovator of how to do this successfully. Below we offer an interview with Linda Kekelis.
Q: Techbridge is a program that has attracted national attention. Could you say a word describing the program and highlighting why it has attracted so much attention?
A: Techbridge empowers girls to realize their dreams through science, technology, and engineering. Techbridge offers after-school and summer programs with hands-on projects, career exploration opportunities, and academic and career guidance to expand girls’ interests and options. Since 2000, Techbridge has served over 3,000 girls in grades 5-12 primarily in socio-economically disadvantaged areas in Oakland and surrounding communities. Curricula are developed with input from girls and findings from the research community, and include projects like Electrical Engineering, in which girls build solar night lights and learn about circuits; Chemical Engineering, in which girls work with polymers to create bouncy balls and learn about the engineering design process; and Clean Tech, in which girls build solar cells and learn about renewable energy. Techbridge also introduces computer science projects.
We don’t want our girls to be just consumers or users of technology, but programmers too. For girls who have limited access to computers at home and school and even more limited exposure to programming, the projects expand their understanding of the promise of technology. By working on hands-on projects such as building robots and designing computer games, girls have a specific goal to work towards, increasing their motivation to persevere and complete a successful project. We promote the “growth mindset” and teach girls that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger and works better the more it is exercised. We have heard from teachers and parents alike that the strong engagement and motivation that girls demonstrate in Techbridge carry over into their school work and classrooms. For example, we often hear of a girl who started off in Techbridge unsure of her abilities is transformed by her experience in Techbridge. By the end of the year, she is more confident, speaking up in classes and working through problems instead of giving up.
Q: Do you expose program participants to experiences beyond the walls of your program?
A: While hands-on projects can spark an interest in a young girl, we have found that role models and field trips to worksites are instrumental in getting girls interested in a career in a technical field. The opportunity to see real-world applications of technology, science, and engineering and meet with role models is rare for most of our girls, yet as we have seen, can be a very impactful influence. Techbridge partners with leading technology, science, and engineering firms around the San Francisco Bay Area to bring girls to corporate worksites, where they can see firsthand what engineers and scientists do, and interact with role models who share inspiring stories and provide academic and career guidance.
Q: There is a growing interest in exposing youth, especially girls, to STEM activities and careers. Do you help other organizations take on this challenge?
A: Through the delivery, evaluation and refinement of its program over the past 12 years, Techbridge has gained a wealth of experience and has become a leader in role model training, working with organizations nationwide. Techbridge’s training and resources are designed to help volunteers effectively engage and relate to youth so that the experience is mutually rewarding. In addition, Techbridge provides training for girl-serving organizations who wish to recruit, train and retain role models for their programs. These resources are available free of charge on the Techbridge website, for organizations or individuals seeking help in these areas.
Techbridge also has a partnership with Girl Scout councils nationwide to provide programs-in-a-box and trainings for Girl Scout staff, leaders and volunteers. This partnership has scaled up to 15 councils nationwide, with an estimated reach of over 15,000 girls by 2013. Girls Go Techbridge is providing training and engineering activities and supporting the capacity of councils to work with partners like the Society of Women Engineers to introduce many more girls to engineering.
Q: There are those who claim that real learning takes place within the school day and the learning in youth programs outside of school lacks rigor. How do you know whether or not you are being successful?
A: We take evaluation seriously and invest time and resources into measuring the impact of all that we do. The evaluation goals of Techbridge are to 1) increase students’ technical and scientific skills; 2) increase confidence levels; 3) enhance academic and career guidance to expand career options; 4) promote greater interest in careers in technology, science, and engineering; and 5) develop a strong and effective network of support for girls by offering training and resources to teachers, role models, families, and partners. Techbridge utilizes both quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods to track progress toward achieving our goals. These include pre- and post-surveys, focus groups with girls, teachers, and families, and program observations and coaching. Our outside evaluator collects and analyzes data for the programs.
Evaluation results demonstrate the success of Techbridge. Last year, 95% of participating students knew more about how things work (like simple machines), 89% felt more confident trying new things, 95% believed that engineering is a good career for women, 96% knew more about different kinds of jobs, and 89% planned to study harder so they can go to college. We also conducted a three-year longitudinal study that showed evidence of long-term impact on girls: 82% reported a greater interest in a career in technology, science and engineering, 86% had more confidence in themselves, and 87% have more career options than they otherwise would have as a result of having participated in Techbridge.
Q: Can you tell us about the recognition that Techbridge has received because of its innovation and success?
A: Techbridge has been nationally recognized for its work. In 2011, Techbridge received the Inclusion Champion Award from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation for supporting students in STEM who are visually impaired. Techbridge’s Executive Director spoke at a White House Convening for the Educate to Innovate initiative on the importance of role models for promoting girls in STEM fields. In addition, Techbridge was featured by Bayer Corporation in a national forum showcasing best practice K-12 STEM education programs.
Linda Kekelis is the Executive Director of Techbridge. As an advocate of girls' engagement in science, technology, and engineering, Linda has been a Principal Investigator on five NSF-funded projects that have supported out-of-school programs for girls and training and resources for role models. She has translated research into practical applications for parents, teachers, and role models. She serves on numerous panels and advisory boards for programs designed to increase the participation of females in technology and engineering. Linda also has conducted research on children with special needs and has published resources to promote the development of children who are visual impaired. She has a Master's degree in Linguistics from the University of Southern California and a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of California, Berkeley.