Girls performing science at Girlstart

Young girls discover options in STEM

Holding up pictures of birds slicked with thick, shiny oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Girlstart employee Lorin Froetschel, a Southwestern University graduate, asked the group of fourth and fifth grade girls, “What if it was your job to clean up the spill? How would you get the oil off?”

Helping girls connect book-work to real-world problems is one of the goals of Girlstart, the Austin-based nonprofit dedicated since 1997 to empowering girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Current executive director Tamara Hudgins, a Georgetown resident, brought the afterschool program to GISD schools in 2010. Girlstart lessons are designed to make girls aware of career options in STEM fields while providing hands-on learning that complements their classroom work. Data indicates that girls in Girlstart afterschool programs are passing their STAAR tests at a 27 percent higher rate than their classmates.

After gathering the girls’ ideas about how to clean the birds, Lorin mixed cooking oil and cocoa powder to simulate oil and handed the girls feathers. “OK,” she said. “Let’s try your ideas to get the oil off of these feathers.”

The clumpy brown “oil” stuck to the feathers as the girls tried scraping it off with a cotton ball and dunking it in water. Lorin explained that environmentalists used soap to clean the birds. She pulled out some dish soap and let the girls scrub and then rinse the feathers. The girls erupted with excitement when the feathers emerged from the water free of residue.

Girls building structures from hula hoops at Girlstart

The oil spill simulation became Lorin’s favorite Girlstart activity—winning out over designing video games, developing new toys, producing commercials, and creating sound-proof boxes—because the girls understood that their efforts really could made a difference. “For them to actually see it work and say, ‘I did that’—that made it special for me.”

Girlstart programs currently take place at Mitchell, Cooper, Williams, Pickett, and McCoy elementary schools. Learn more about Girlstart programs and camps at Girlstart is hiring more women like Lorin to work with the students in the program. If you’re interested in learning more about working part-time for Girlstart, go to

Did You Know?

In 2013, Girlstart named Dr. Emily Niemeyer, a chemistry professor at Southwestern University, as one of the Outstanding Texas Women in STEM. The yearly award recognizes six women who are successful in STEM careers. Read more about how Dr. Niemeyer is a role model for young women in STEM careers in Southwestern Online.

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