The Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), which IES administers, funds the research, development, and evaluation of new, commercially viable education technology products. In this guest blog, Abi Olukeye of Smart Girl HQ discusses the inspiration behind her recently completed SBIR project, Dear Smart Girl, and the importance of helping girls envision themselves in STEM Careers.
What is Dear Smart Girl?
Our Dear Smart Girl platform is a learning experience that combines online interactive game-based learning curriculum with offline engaging activity kits and personalized STEM learning recommendations to enable elementary-aged girls achieve STEM career literacy by age 12. Our Dear Smart Girl platform is the only STEM career education platform on the market with an ecosystem of products with a research-driven design featuring age-appropriate, experienced-based informal learning content designed to facilitate STEM discovery, self-efficacy, and fluency for young female-identifying learners.
Through our Dear Smart Girl digital platform, we transform the way girls perceive and engage in STEM learning pathways by providing an innovative multi-stage learning experience.
Learning begins in the whimsical town of Ingenia, where learners are immersed into a digital world that is designed to capture aesthetics and themes that resonate with female-identifying students. Learners begin by selecting a storyline, each of which is associated with a STEM career and features a project-based problem-solving activity. Along the way, students gain new vocabulary and fluency with the subject area being exposed to them. In stage two, learners take their new skills offline and work to complete the real-life version of their game project using our complementary Dear Smart Girl project kit. These two stages of learning combine powerfully to strategically introduce, challenge, and engage young girls in STEM career exploration that builds their confidence and literacy in STEM pathways.
What inspired you to create the Dear Smart Girl platform?
The idea was born out of personal need. I started observing that at about age 3 my daughters were often describing toys and activities as either “boy things” or “girl things.” I was really stunned to see how early biases develop and felt strongly about finding ways to balance out their views. My first instincts were to find more toys and activities that would appeal to them and activities that would expose them broadly. And I fully anticipated that a quick internet search would surface plenty of options. I was so wrong. Not only were there limited options, most of what I found did not appeal to my daughters in terms of type of activity and aesthetics.
Reflecting on my own experience as someone who has a STEM degree and was, at the time, working at a global manufacturing firm leading technical projects, I decided to dive into the research about girls and STEM. I discovered that although women participate equally in the labor force, they only make up 28% of the STEM workforce. In addition, early adolescence tends to be when girls lean away from STEM at a higher rate than their male peers. That inspired me to work with other talented and passionate people to build products and facilitate experiences and help young female-identifying learning achieve STEM career literacy by age 12.
What are the types of STEM careers featured in Dear Smart Girl and why did you choose them?
Our pilot career module is an electrical engineering module, but over the course of the next two years, we are working to add five more game modules featuring chemical science, mechanical engineering, biology, software development and product designer careers. We select careers based on science standards being taught in 4th–7th grade. Our goal is to take topical themes and relate them to their real-world applications while also putting them in the context of the career domains that features the scientific concept and related skills. We also working to align to the National Career Clusters framework, which supports Career Technical Education (CTE) programs.
What elements of Dear Smart Girl are uniquely tailored to female-identifying students?
We tailor our product to help sustain interest in STEM Career pathways in the following ways.
- We are intentional about selecting and mapping careers in ways that show real-world relevance. Anecdotally, we find that when learners are excited about what they are building, they are more engaged and motivated to learn the skills needed to accomplish their goal.
- We optimize our projects to create an experience that is a perfect blend of learning a new technical skill and creative design. According to Microsoft research on closing the STEM gap, 91% of girls describe themselves as creatives. When girls learn about how real-world STEM jobs can be used to help the world, their perception of the creativity and positive impact of STEM careers can more than double.
- We use beautiful illustrations, colors, and imagery to creative engaging worlds and digital environment rich with representation for diverse female-identifying students.
What advice can you give technology developers who focus on female-identifying students?
For developers working on products designed for female-identifying students, I recommend a collaborative development approach. We co-create every career module we work on with students to get feedback early and often. While it is easy to fall for stereotypical storylines, female-identifying students have diverse needs, interests, and learning styles that should be celebrated with well-designed learning platforms.
What are the next steps for Dear Smart Girl?
We are so excited to have been recently award a phase 2 award to expand and commercialize our career exploration modules. Over next two years, we will develop and launch five additional career modules, expand educator tools, build in extension activities, and launch to CTE programs across the country.
Abi Olukeye is the founder and CEO of Smart Girl HQ, a company dedicated to closing the gender gap for females in the STEM pipeline by increasing the number of positive experiences young girls have with STEM early in their learning journey. Her vision is to create an ecosystem of products that when used together are a powerful catalyst for sustaining long-term engagement in STEM for young girls. Her work has been supported by National Science Foundation and the Department of Education through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Awards, the NC Idea Foundation, and the Vela Education Fund. Abi is the chair of the board of CSEdResearch.org and a past member of the Computer Science K12 Standards Committee for North Carolina. She holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Virginia Tech and MBA from Indiana University. She and her husband live in Charlotte, NC and have two young daughters who greatly inspire her work.
This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.