Last year, I had the chance to talk to Mamta Patel Nagaraja of NASA about their pilot NASA GIRLS online summer program. The 5-week program offered girls online lessons and one-on-one video chat mentoring with women working in a STEM field at NASA. I was so very glad to hear that the project was successful enough to be brought back this year, with an expansion for NASA BOYS no less! Applications are due July 2nd.
This year’s program is ready to accept about 40 girls and 40 boys, that’s four times the numbers of kids mentored in its pilot year. That should come in as good news to the 1500 applicants who tried their luck last year! When I asked Nagaraja to describe the success of last year’s program, she replied:
We were overwhelmed at the number of parents who actually applied to put their child in the running for a NASA mentor. We received over 1500 applications for a program that advertised 18-20 spots. The attention it got through a few Tweets was amazing, which signified that the public wants programs like NASA GIRLS. NASA really believes in education outreach and giving back to the public. One of the key elements to the program is it operates on zero budget and relies solely on volunteers. Of the families and mentors who participated, 100% said they would recommend it to other families. We employed a random lottery system to select the participants, and we were so impressed with the caliber of the students despite not using grades, test scores, essays, or other commonly used vetting tools. This shows that a low cost, minimal time consuming program has the potential to impact the next generation of great innovators.
The expansion into NASA BOYS was made possible by NASA GIRLS’ low cost success. By pooling volunteers from male employees, the new BOYS program will be able to reach a whole new demographic without taking away resources from the existing GIRLS program. “We believe all children deserve mentors,” said Mamta.
While the gender gap in STEM fields was the motivation to begin NASA GIRLS, there is another separate problem in America. We seem to have declining interest in STEM fields among the young kids. The White House started the Educate to Innovate program to move American students from the middle to the top of the math and science fields. This is critical for our nation’s growth and economy. There are many young boys who do not receive the guidance they need to excel, and this program helps us reach out to them. However, Women@NASA has not forgotten the goal of encouraging young girls to pursue STEM courses, and we fully believe fighting the gender gap is a critical battle. We will continue to make this our main focus while also affording the positive impacts of having a mentor to all young children.