“My concern was that we have a tech world, and women are going to be excluded because they aren’t exposed to all the available opportunities in science. I wanted them to see the opportunities.”
Cynthia Barnett loved teaching science to her elementary school students during the 1970s in Norwalk, Conn. Science not only gave the children an opportunity for hands-on learning through experiments, Barnett says, but also presented a chance to incorporate other skills, like reading, research and problem-solving. “It was fun and educational,” says the 74-year-old, who retired from the Norwalk school system in 2003.
But six years into retired life, Barnett was inspired by an article she read to introduce young girls to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, which could lead to lucrative careers. With tech jobs growing at a fast clip, girls were being left behind. Women earn half of the nation’s bachelor’s degrees in science and math, but they receive far fewer degrees in subjects like computer science and engineering — where they are awarded 18 percent and 19 percent of the degrees, respectively.
Women hold only about 25 percent of the country’s 9 million STEM jobs, a trend that is expected to continue if the gender gap is not addressed. “My concern was that we have a tech world, and women are going to be excluded because they aren’t exposed to all the available opportunities in science,” says Barnett. “I wanted them to see the opportunities.”
Barnett had a head start on her mission, as she had created a coed, STEM-focused nonprofit in 1996 called Saturday Academy. This time, renamed Amazing Girls Science, it would serve girls only and would mark its reemergence with a daylong science conference in 2009. Barnett says she didn’t know if anyone would attend; then 100 girls came to the community college where it was held. “I was just so excited,” recalls the mother of three daughters in their 40s, one of whom is a middle school assistant principal.
Today Amazing Girls Science has 15 educational programs for girls. Over 500 girls annually participate in camps and classes in computer science, robotics and coding.
That learn-through-doing approach was part of the allure for Sahiba Dhindsa, 15, who started attending Barnett’s conferences and joining her robotics teams about five years ago. A self-described “STEM kid,” Dhindsa didn’t need an introduction to the field: Her mother is a science teacher and her father is a software engineer.
But the girls-only atmosphere was also a major draw. Dhindsa recalls that at a school robotics team meeting, a boy wanted to relegate her to making posters. At Barnett’s events, “I was able to program and work and no one was telling me to do arts and crafts,” Dhindsa says.
Barnett understands that all girls who attend her programs won’t become scientists, but she hopes that they’ll leave more informed and self-assured. Barnett takes their opinions seriously when deciding which programs to host and keeps up on the latest STEM trends. For example, when she realized that robotics was becoming an increasingly critical part of the STEM field, she attended a seminar for her own education and recruited teachers qualified to instruct the girls.
“I learned a lot of this just by doing it,” says Barnett, who runs the small nonprofit from an office in her cozy home near the beach in Norwalk. Shelves hold her numerous community awards, and the walls display her four degrees, which include a master’s in education and a doctorate in administration from Teachers College, Columbia University. "I want girls to learn about research and empowerment. Girls have to be strong enough and powerful enough so they can handle what comes down the pike."
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