Gender Specific Programming: The Benefits of All-Girls Environments


By Carrie Scheick, Program Coordinator

Keystone Science School offers a few specific programs in with gender-specific groupings including Girls in STEM and Colorado Great Sand Dunes Keystone Voyager. All programs with gender-specific programming include curriculum dedicated to breaking down barriers of participation. Read more about the research and our planning process with regards to our programming.

“Girls in STEM has helped me learn more about STEM careers and it makes me feel like I could go into one of those careers.”

– 2018 5th grade Girls in STEM program participant

According to the National Education Association, “Girls who learn in all-girl environments are believed to be more comfortable responding to questions and sharing their opinions…” As an organization, we’ve seen girls flourish and open up during our Girls in STEM and all-female Adventure and Camp programs.

Our Girls in STEM program strives to break through gender barriers in STEM fields, inspire girls to believe in themselves, and empower girls to be confident leaders in their classrooms and beyond. Our program fosters an amazing community of females, students and adults alike, who want to see change.

According to the Women’s Foundation of Colorado publication, This is What STEM Looks Like!, “Women’s under-representation in STEM fields starts early with gender gaps in STEM interests beginning in middle school and growing throughout high school, college, and career. Far too many girls and women are discouraged from pursuing success in STEM fields. Now is the time for change.”

Keystone Science School launched the Girls in STEM program in 2015 to be part of this change. We hope to engage as many female students in STEM education as possible to challenge the gender gap and inspire social change within STEM fields. Our program targets 3rd-8th grade students in hopes to get girls excited about these fields and careers that are traditionally dominated by men. This year we expanded Girls in STEM to include a high school leadership program, striving to empower high school girls to be confident and positive female role models, as well as encourage continued engagement in STEM opportunities.

Our program challenges the false stereotypes that girls do not excel in these fields by creating an all-girls learning environment, building knowledge of STEM topics and careers, and exposing girls to positive female role models in STEM fields.

We’ve seen this be true as we’ve created a safe and inclusive learning environment; last year 82% of our participants said they preferred working in a ‘girls only’ environment. Longtime participant Maia Wang shares how she’s been impacted by the program, “I have always been interested in a problem-solving career. However, [Girls in STEM] has educated me about the significant disparity between women and men in STEM careers. The program has also allowed me to make new friends and strengthen old relationships, gain new technical skills, and make new discoveries.”

One of my favorite things about our Girls in STEM program is that our program has explored a lot of different topics and careers. We want to empower girls to explore these topics by engaging them in hands-on, real-world activities to demonstrate how STEM is relevant and fun. Our curriculum has explored food science, where girls mapped taste buds on their tongues and made homemade “dippin’ dots” with liquid nitrogen and vanilla ice cream. They constructed birdhouses, learned to code, and studied the physics of rockets. Most recently girl learned about different health care careers and interacted with “live” mannequins in the nursing lab at Colorado Mountain College.

It’s been wonderful to see how supportive our local organizations and female professionals have been throughout our programs from the handful of females on Arapahoe Basin Ski Patrol teaching the girls about snow science to Sara Ireland, the Compositing Supervisor at Laika Production, providing guidance as girls create their own stop-motion animation films from conception to completion. Our all female instructional team and adult mentors set our program apart.

We share our own stories of struggle, challenge, and success, and stand as real-world examples of what women can accomplish. The mentors provide the girls with personal insight on career paths, challenges they’ve faced, and times they’ve experienced failure, success, and been part of innovation. Sally Gentling of Big Agnes shared about her experience last November working with our Tech Fashion program, “My job as a Product Designer in the outdoor industry allows me to not only be creative but to use all the areas of STEM every day. I loved sharing my story and inspiring young girls to be creative, and practical by helping them to take a product from an idea to a working prototype. It was really rewarding to see the spark of innovation in each of the participants, and to get them excited about careers in STEM.”

The reality is that we still see the underrepresentation of females within STEM fields in the workforce. However, we are seeing change slowly, but surely as a result of our program. In 2018, 91% of participants showed more interest in the STEM field after attending a STEM program. We are excited that our programming is contributing to greater gender diversity and equality within STEM careers in the future.

We’ve seen such success within our Girls in STEM program that we expanded all-female programs to our Adventure Programs. In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege of running Keystone Science School’s first all-girls Keystone Mountain Adventures: Girls of the Gore. My background includes working with all-girl populations at previous environmental education organizations, and I always found it incredibly rewarding. I was excited about the opportunity to continue to work with all girls in a wilderness setting.

“As one of the older kids on the trip, the counselors gave me more leadership positions among the girls and helped me realize my full potential.”

– 2017 9th grade Keystone Mountain Adventures camper

The relationships formed and solidified on longer trips is one of my favorite things about leading backcountry trips. These shared experiences are once in a lifetime opportunities – the lessons learned and memories created will last. “One of the reasons I love camp so much is all the new people that you can make these connections with after being in the woods for two weeks together,” says a 14-year-old Girls of the Gore camper. “I also loved learning how to set up a tent, cook and set up bear bags at camp each night. Another high was just backpacking. I had never experienced anything like this trip before and it was such a unique experience

I loved being able to carry everything I needed on my bag, and realizing how strong I could push myself to be.” I personally had character-defining outdoor experiences as a teen, and I love that my role at Keystone Science School provides those opportunities for other kids. It’s so encouraging to hear that outdoor experiences are meaningful to the campers and to us as leaders.

The group of girls on the Girls of the Gore trip had limited camping experience, so it was great to see them push themselves outside of their comfort zone. They quickly learned and mastered the wilderness skills that my co-leader, Sara LoTemplio, and I taught them. After a few days of practice, upon arrival at our daily destination, the girls took immediate initiative to get our campsite “set up” for the evening without us asking them to do so. It was great to see the progression as the girls not only became more comfortable with these skills but also became more comfortable living outdoors and with each other.

Additionally, last summer there was an all girls overnight option for Discovery Campers during Adventure Week. This week of camp differs from a typical Discovery Camp week because the Wilderness Trip is three days and two nights, instead of just an overnight. The girls hiked Peaks trail from Frisco to Breckenridge, which is not an easy trek because you’re gaining elevation for almost the entire section of the trail. The next day the girls summited Mt. Baldy, 13,684ft, to watch the sunrise.

Dedicated Discovery Camp Counselor Sarah Angold-Stevens said this was her favorite trip from the summer. “The girls killed it, they were all so excited and motivated. Sarah worked Discovery Camp the summer of 2017 as well, so she has lead her fair share of Wilderness Trips for campers, but she said this trip was different. “One of the big differences I noticed was how [the girls] interacted with each other. They were so supportive of each other, when one was struggling three others would offer to take some weight from their pack…I think [allyship] was our main focus…that we want to support each other and help each other out, putting [others] down doesn’t make us look better.”

These all-girl communities allow us to incorporate some gender-specific curriculum to our daily discussions. There were many great conversations surrounding leadership, gender barriers and representation, and women in the outdoor and STEM fields. Did you know:

  • Only 10-20% of outdoor company CEOs are women and are still underrepresented in STEM workforce, especially in engineering and computer sciences.
  • 37% of National Park Service employees are women.
  • In a 2015 Outside magazine issue, women were in 18 images out of 89 total images, whereas men were represented in 67 images.

The girls opened up as we spent more time together and talked about these challenging realities. One camper shared that “The KMA trip taught me to share my opinions…” and another said she “felt comfortable enough to talk during conversations”. Sarah said over the course of their Adventure Week that “…some of the younger, quieter girls started to speak up more.” We discussed society’s expectations of girls vs. the reality that we all fall “outside the box”. We shared personal experiences of feeling discriminated against based on our gender.

Not only did we share our own experiences, but we learned about other females’ experience as well. We learned about awesome, influential women such as Junko Tabei, the first woman to summit Mt. Everest, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. We read an article about a female scientist studying climate change in Alaska, who experienced numerous fiascos while tried to pee without taking off her bibs (a garment similar to a snowsuit) because most bibs are designed for men and not women. We shared what positive and healthy female relationships look like, and how we strive to be allies instead of bullies and competitors. “It was so inspiring to hear these girls talk about ways they can support each other out in the world,” shared Sarah.

I personally believe it’s important for adults to have these challenging, but rewarding conversations with kids and these gender-specific programs provide the opportunity to do just that. Raising awareness of the gender gap that still exists in our society today gives girls the opportunity to see they can be part of the change in the future. I’m thankful to be part of an organization who encourages girls to ask questions, seek solutions, and inspire them to confidently believe in themselves.