National Opinion: Inaugural cyber challenge inspires girls to embrace STEM learning

National Opinion: Inaugural cyber challenge inspires girls to embrace STEM learning

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writers.

When it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, the United States is in the midst of a critical gender gap. Fifty percent of the population is female, but only 29% of science and engineering jobs and just 20% of positions in cybersecurity are held by women, according to Cybersecurity Ventures.

We need to get more girls excited about STEM education and inspired to pursue STEM fields. To do this, we must overcome societal obstacles. Studies show that girls and boys do not differ in their math and science abilities, but as early as the second grade, young people start adopting society’s lingering and unfounded belief that “math is for boys, not girls.” By third grade girls decide whether or not science and math is for them. This is the first time they actively start self-selecting out of STEM. And by middle school, even more girls self-select out of STEM coursework.

To help change the narrative, Girl Scouts and Raytheon are launching the first-ever Girl Scout Cyber Challenge. On Oct. 19, in cities across the United States, the all-day interactive experience and competition will invite girls to complete a series of cybersecurity challenges and win prizes along the way.

The time is now to turn the corner and bring more girls into the pipeline. Research tells us that if girls had been given a better understanding of the impact that math and science can make and more exposure to relevant STEM learning while they were in middle and high school, they would have been more interested in pursuing STEM careers.

We need to show young women how science and math can empower them to make a difference. With STEM degrees, they can build safe, green cities. They can help heal. They can protect the country’s critical infrastructure and its people from hacking and breaches. By engineering the future, they can be part of something that matters.

Experiential learning in life is key. When girls engage in this kind of trial-and-error exercise, they get instant feedback. When people learn by doing, they tend to retain the lesson. Both the challenge and the computer learning programming are designed to spark girls’ interest in careers in data science, robotics, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, among other STEM fields.

Harnessing the skills, talents, and insights of girls and young women in the STEM space is a national imperative. Teaching differently will help build greater gender inclusion. That, in turn, will expand innovation through diversity of thought and strengthen our competitive advantage in the world economy.

We are in a time of immense and constant technological change that impacts every aspect of our lives. From the devices we use, to the ways we perform our jobs, to the methods for treating our illnesses, and the increasingly complex cybersecurity threats we face, we need a workforce that reflects the population it serves.

It is long past time for the United States to tap the potential of girls. They are the creators, the innovators and the problem solvers of tomorrow. We must ensure they are prepared with the skills, courage, and confidence to embrace their power to make the world a better, safer place.

Sylvia Acevedo is CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. She’s a former NASA rocket scientist and has held engineering roles at IBM and Apple.

Rebecca Rhoads is president of Global Business Services at Raytheon and a former Girl Scout. She’s an electrical engineer with experience ranging from systems engineering to product effectiveness.

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