Snap the Gap, Pilot Program for Girls Learning STEM, Thrives in California with Disney’s Help

At five years old, girls are just as confident as boys. By age six, that confidence starts to waver. By nine, the gap between girls and boys who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) becomes apparent. By 17, only 11% of girls are interested in STEM. This PLoS ONE 2016 data is why Snap the Gap — a pilot program aimed at engaging girls ages 10–12 in STEM — exists.

Snap the Gap, a grant-funded program UC Davis is developing in schools throughout California, began in 2019. Along with UC Davis, Snap the Gap is also partnered with the Walt Disney Company (No. 20 on 2019 Top 50 Companies for Diversity), which funded the littleBits STEM inventor kits the students enrolled are using to learn about circuit-building. Snap the Gap is also partnered with Million Women Mentors California, a UC Davis program that aims to advance women and girls in STEM.

Disney did not immediately respond to DiversityInc’s requests for comment, but in an April press release about the partnership, Christine McCarthy, senior executive vice president and chief financial officer at Disney highlighted the success of past collaborations with littleBits and Disney’s excitement in being involved in Snap the Gap.

“Disney is proud to support this groundbreaking effort to create new and engaging opportunities for girls to develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed,” she said.

The strategy of Snap the Gap is threefold, Erin Silva of the STEM Strategies office at UC Davis who has been working on carrying out the program said: Use the littleBits STEM inventor kits to give the girls a hands-on experience in building circuits, offer free access to online learning courses on DIY.org and connect students with women who work in STEM fields as mentors.

“These three components working together to help support 10–12-year-old use across California in learning about, exploring and discovering STEM and hopefully making an impact on their STEM perceptions and attitudes so that we can help get more young people engaged and excited about STEM for their future.”

Between last year’s winter and spring 10-week programs, Snap the Gap ran its program at an estimated 250 sites, which ranged from schools with both after-school and in-school programs to other youth-serving community organizations.

Natalia Aguirre is the district community engagement specialist at San Juan Unified School District, which is made up of more than 60 schools in Sacramento County, California. Aguirre said the district was aiming to incorporate more academic programs into its community outreach and found out about Snap the Gap through another community partner, ReCreate, an art supply store and studio that sells unwanted items from local businesses to reduce waste.

“We really loved that the focus was on girls because the end result was getting more girls interested in [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] STEAM and really kind of having even the language in ‘she/her’ format, we felt was very strong,” Aguirre said.

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This student uses the littleBits inventor kit to create a robotic arm to help with everyday tasks — like blowing your nose. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis)

Aguirre met with Silva about adopting Snap the Gap in two of the district’s schools: Arlington Heights and Mariposa Avenue elementary schools. She said the flexibility Snap the Gap allowed for schools and organizations to adapt the program to their styles and needs was beneficial. At Arlington Heights, the school enrolled fourth and fifth graders; while at Mariposa, the school enrolled only fifth graders for the first term, with the second cohort including fourth graders and allowing the fifth graders to be their mentors. In some schools where Snap the Gap was implemented, teachers hand-picked students they thought would be interested. In others, students signed up themselves.

Nicole Wallenhorst, a computer engineer at Intel, was a mentor at Mariposa in charge of leading a dozen fifth grade girls during the afterschool program. She found out about Snap the Gap through an information session facilitated by Intel’s onsite outreach coordinator that visited the Intel campus in Folsom, California.

“It resonated with me, particularly because I feel very lucky, almost, that I made my way into computer engineering, just because growing up and with the school background that I had, I wouldn’t have known what an engineer did,” she said.

Wallenhorst grew up in a small town in Ohio and excelled in math and physics in high school. Her small school did not have an engineering program, but she applied to colleges as an engineering major based on her guidance counselor’s recommendation. In college, Wallenhorst, who had an interest in computers from a young age, found a love for computer engineering.

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Students build their own “bat vision” devices using sensors and buzzers to help guide safely around the room without sight. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis)

Many of the Snap the Gap programs are targeted to Title 1 schools, or schools that receive additional federal funding because they have high concentrations of lower-income students. Snap the Gap gives hands-on, creative STEM learning experiences to students who may not otherwise have access to it.

“In general, knowing how diverse California is as a state … there are certainly hubs that might have more resources, but by and large we have quite a wide range of socio-economic status. We have quite a range of historically underrepresented groups in STEM fields, so being able to see that these are viable options for students can be a game-changer,” Silva said.

What’s also notable about most STEM fields is that they are lucrative — and often do not require more than a bachelor’s degree to have high earning potential. For this reason, STEM fields can be viable options for people to make high salaries and break cycles of poverty without racking up debt from graduate school.

“Engineering is one of the few degrees that you actually have a solid earning potential that you can get away with just having a bachelor’s degree, and that was a part of why putting these programs in Title 1 schools spoke to me so much … If they can find a way to go to college and only have to go for four or five years and can also rake in a decent salary with good benefits, they can start to break that circle of poverty,” Wallenhorst said.

The program begins with the girls using the online STEM learning platform DIY.org to help aid them with experimenting and building with the littleBits electronic kits. The girls start out by following the various tutorials, adding their own touches along the way as they become more comfortable with building using the littleBits kits. At the end of the 10-week program, the schools hold showcases that allowed the girls to show their families their creations and talk about their experiences with Snap the Gap.

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A student shows off a light-sensitive booklight she created. When a space is dark, the light automatically turns on. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis)

Wallenhorst said that at Mariposa, she saw the girls go from being uncertain and timid, to taking ownership of what they wanted to create and beginning to identify steps they could take to work out problems they ran into.

“Being able to kind of massage it and work through it a little bit more with them instead of just having to spoon feed them the answers was a super, super awesome transition to see,” Wallenhorst said.

Through its mentoring, Snap the Gap also works to expand girls’ understandings of what STEM encompasses. Silva said the need for STEM in a variety of different fields is expanding.

“You don’t have to be only in a lab coat and love chemistry. You could be figuring out how we’re going to feed the world in the next 20 years,” she said.

Women make up half of the college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and technology workforce, according to the National Science Board’s 2018 science and engineering indicators. That 28% is a growing number. Women work in relatively high numbers in social sciences (60%) and biological, agricultural, and environmental sciences (48%), but just over a quarter work in computer and mathematical sciences.

Related Story: Women in Tech Positions have Increased to Nearly 30%, According to AnitaB.org

Wallenhorst said as a woman working with computers, she hasn’t faced overt forms of sexism, but has noticed small behaviors that made her question whether people she worked with were unsure of her because she is young, or because she is a woman.

“There hasn’t really been anyone telling me that I don’t deserve to be here, but there have been a few more subtle interactions,” Wallenhorst said.

However, she also said she’s met male allies that who helped her along the way to bolster her voice and make sure she receives credit for her work. She said in her experience, most women who are ahead in their STEM careers have moved up to managerial roles, so it has been difficult for her to find a same-sex mentor who is more experienced but still in a technical role.

For girls interested in furthering their STEM education, mentoring is an important component.

“You might be taking science, but maybe your teacher is a male, so being able to see or have a mentor as a female who is … maybe working or doing some really exciting research for a company that maybe you’ve heard of or maybe you haven’t can just show you how much more there is, and how much more is available, and how STEM is all around us,” Silva said.

If children can see people who look like them pursuing things they want to pursue, they can more easily see themselves doing the same.

“For kids, I think it’s huge to be able to see the female role model, the people of color role models — everything that says, ‘Hey, you’re you and you’re beautiful and you can do whatever you want to do,” Wallenhorst said.

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After two creative design sessions, students create their own carnival games using recycled materials and their littleBits inventor kits. A robotic arm moves the target in this game. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis)

Aside from being an educational co-curricular activity, Snap the Gap had an even larger impact on a few of the girls. Aguirre said at the final showcase at Mariposa, one student shared that she enrolled in Snap the Gap on her first day at the elementary school. She told those who attended that the program was a place for her to learn in an environment with other girls where she felt safe. The student and others will soon be talking to the board of education about the effect the program had on her.

Aguirre said another parent shared that she had struggled to get her daughter out of bed for school before she enrolled her in Snap the Gap.

“One of the parents said, ‘I have a really hard time getting my daughter up in the morning and wanting to go to school, but since she started the Snap the Gap program, it’s all she talks about when she gets home.’ And she doesn’t want to miss school so that she can have Snap the Gap after school,” Aguirre said.

Although the program is only in its pilot stages now, it is growing. At San Juan Unified School District next semester, over 1100 students will be enrolled. It started with just 24 last year.

Wallenhorst likened having powerful woman mentors in the classroom to seeing powerful woman characters in the media — both show girls they can be superwomen.

“When I went to go see ‘Wonder Woman,’ I felt like I could take on the world after that, because she is a strong, super ‘B-A’ woman who is not taking anyone’s crap … And that was so empowering just to have that,” Wallenhorst said. “And you get that, maybe to a lesser degree but still true in the workplace, in your classes. …  If you have women who have walked that path that you have walked and you’re able to pick their brains and understand some of the … potholes that they ran into so you can try to avoid them, you know that someone has your back.”

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