Girlstart’s Tamara Hudgins Helps Prepare Tomorrow’s Tech Innovators
Tamara Hudgins brings two decades of non-profit management and developmental experience to her role as Executive Director of Girlstart, where the mission is to empower girls in science, technology, engineering and math. She is passionate about creating educational programs that improve teaching and learning, as well as maintaining civic vitality.
More succinctly, she confesses to be a “stalwart defender of the underdog, so that’s why I am doomed to be a non-profiteer for all time.”
Hudgins received her Ph.D. in Art History at Charles University in Prague, and earned M.A. and B.A. degrees in Art History from School of the Art Institute and Ohio State University, respectively. She has taught at the graduate level at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Central European University, and the Prague College of Studies in Art and Architecture
Hudgins says the non-pretentious attitude is her favorite thing about Austin
“People here are very down to earth. The things we have to do in this world to solve inequities and challenges that hold people from their potential are so significant and grave, we don’t have time to waste on airs. That I can have a real conversation with basically anyone here is reassuring to me.”
What was your initial idea or motivation to launch Girlstart?
I didn’t! I followed the person that did. This is the fourth founder that I’ve followed and my role in this phase of organizational development is to help the organization true up for future success.
Girlstart’s raison d’etre is that while women earn just over half of bachelor’s degrees in the US, they hold less than a quarter of the nation’s jobs in STEM companies. That number is lower if you look at the number of engineers or computer scientists. We think girls have great ideas, and that more great ideas create new innovations. We want to equip and empower girls to pursue STEM electives, majors, and careers so that they can go on to solve the world’s greatest challenges. Since I came to Girlstart, we have grown dramatically — not just here, but across Texas and nationally.
How is Girlstart different from other youth technology programs?
We are different insofar as the technology is not the only thing. Nobody wants to be on the computer all day. Technology is also not a competition in which one person is right and everybody else is wrong, or my robot beats your robot. Technology is a tool, a way to collaborate and solve real-world challenges.
I understand that this summer has been exceptionally busy for you and the Girlstart team. Given how much COVID has slowed the general economy, why has the impact been different for your organization?
In March 2020, I gave a presentation to our team titled “Adverse External Climates and Nonprofit Organizations.” The rationale for this presentation was to give the team a kind of existential choice: who do we want to be when this is ‘over’? What do we need to do, what do we need to pay attention to, during this time? We talked about what we were going to do was to be as relevant as possible during this time, because if we were relevant during this phase of uncertainty, it would be noticed — and when this is all ‘over’, it would be remembered that Girlstart had stepped up in a responsive and innovative way. Because I have led small to mid-sized organizations during both of these (and other) external crises, we have internal ‘acumen’ that has helped us prioritize and focus on the real challenges that we are able to inform and solve (how to continue engaged STEM learning), rather than on the challenges that we can do very little about (the pandemic).
According to a spring 2020 NWEA report, “students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in [mathematics] in normal conditions.” NWEA’s report did not forecast that the pandemic might not be ‘solved’, and presumed that life would go back to ‘normal’, by fall 2020. Obviously, the current state of the pandemic is such that learning slide will be exacerbated through, at minimum, the end of 2020. This is particularly adverse for the at-risk and high-need population of girls that Girlstart serves. Students from economically disadvantaged families are traditionally at the greatest risk of suffering from the “summer slump,” the loss of knowledge and skills that takes place when students disengage from learning during the summer months. Coupled with the potentially year-long pandemic crisis, it is critical that the high-need communities we serve stay engaged with STEM.
Girlstart has therefore focused on how we might continue to provide STEM resources and programming, and to help mitigate this loss of learning during the COVID-19 crisis. We are working hard to make sure that our programs are meaningful and engaging.
Girlstart has traditionally focused on camps and in-person activations. How have you transitioned these experiences in the wake of COVID and social distancing?
Girlstart’s work is interpersonally intensive. The impact that we are able to make is in no small part owing to the connections that girls in our programs make with their STEM CREW (pre-service teachers who lead our programs), and with each other. That sticky factor is not unique to Girlstart, but it is one of our core elements. While it may change the mode of the work that we do, it will not change the work that we do. Learning, however, to adapt to a new medium for educating and inspiring is not simply a matter of channeling through a screen: it also requires deep thinking about the nature of how to build sticky and meaningful educational interactions despite the screen.
Practically speaking, we adjusted how Girlstart Summer Camp can be delivered in 2020. Owing to the continuously evolving situation, as well as feedback from summer camp parents, 2020 Girlstart Summer Camp themes and curricula were put on ice for the next time we can provide in-person learning. Our team came together to devise a completely new program, to be delivered virtually (but ensuring that girls had all the supplies and materials, including technology, to effectively participate). The resultant program, Girlstart Summer Camp at Home, leveraged existing curricula and strategies that have been successful in in-person Summer Camp, but leaned more heavily on other strategies such as SEL and, of course, program delivery via Zoom. All Summer Camp participants received their Summer Camp Boxes well ahead of the week of camp with ALL materials required to do STEM hands-on activities, organized by theme/activity, and supplemented with offices supplies, and camp swag such as stickers and a t-shirt. These Summer Camp Boxes included technology, with every girl receiving an Ozobot to keep, as well as a tablet/hotspot (if she did not have a dedicated device). Summer Camp participants also received a STEM workbook (via mail or local pickup) to continue hands-on STEM learning to supplement and enhance the week-long virtual experience. It was a huge success, and we are leaning on this strategy in order to plan for the fall.
While Girlstart began here in Central Texas, it now has outposts in four other cities. Do you find that each metropolitan area has its own unique personality that the program needs to be tailored to? Or, is it more about exporting the Austin personality to those other locations?
I think science is universal and girls are relatively similar all across the US, actually. We do make sure that as we go places, we are respectful of local byways. We’re more about bringing the science to everyone. But we do bring our Girlstart flair with us!
Are there plans for any other Girtstart expansions in the near future?
You bet! Minneapolis/St. Paul, the North Carolina Triangle as soon as in-person programs are safe. We are embarking on a new strategic plan that will begin at the first of next year.
Can you give us a better idea of the typical Girlstart enrollee. What do you think are some of the main skills enrollees receive via their participation in the program?
Girlstart is not a remedial program, and you’ll never hear us using the word ‘geek’ or ‘nerd.’ We are a program for every girl who is or wants to be brave, creative, and curious, and use her ideas to help solve big challenges. So in our programs, we meet girls where they are, and that is why we love using thematic approaches (as in our Summer Camp programs) to imparting STEM content.
For instance, a camp called Girlstart Galaxy explores how to love and work in space. If you’re going to Mars, the shortest one-way trip is many months long, and you’ll have to bring everything with you. How are you going to have fresh fruits and vegetables? Well you’re going to have to learn how to grow food, in this case, lettuce, in space. We’re talking about essential STEM skills like the engineering design process. You have an idea for a product, say, a prosthetic device. Your first try isn’t going to be perfect, so what are you going to do to make the next iteration a little better, and then a little better next time, so your invention is great? We’re talking about careers, too, so that girls know what pathways they can follow in order to get to their desired career.
In Girlstart After School, we’re following the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and other similar guidelines in other states so that girls are gaining extra time and experience in the science standards for 4th and 5th grade. Earth science, engineering challenges, forces and friction, circuits and electrical engineering. But everything that we do is hands-on, inquiry-based STEM activities that are engaging and fun.
What does a Girlstart success story look like?
A Girlstart success story looks like an 8 or 9 year old girl who maybe hasn’t had much experience in science. Texas elementary children only receive about 2.6 hours of science instruction in a week (less during a pandemic!). Yet, in the winter of the 5th grade, you’re asked to begin to make choices about what classes you’re going to take in your first year of middle school. Am I going to take regular, or advanced science and math? The answer, we hope, is the advanced track.
Our Girlstart girls go on to take dramatically more advanced science and math courses than non-Girlstart participants, and the number of those classes that they take goes up over time, contrasted with nonparticipants who take fewer of these advanced classes and the number goes down over time. Why does this matter? Because if you take Algebra 1 at the earliest possible moment (generally 8th grade, but some offer it for 7th grade), and you opt in to the advanced science classes at middle school, you’re going to be perceived by your school as ready to continue that track at high school. And then you’ll have taken all these advanced math and science classes at high school that regardless of what you choose for college, all of the doors are open to you. Of course we want girls to opt in to STEM majors at college. But a third of Girlstart After School girls would be first generation college students, so college itself is also an achievement. But keeping the doors open for as long as possible…that is an important goal.
With regard to alumna successes, we have a bunch of them. We have alumna who are young professionals at technology companies…lawyers…medical…we have at least one epidemiologist who is working deeply on the pandemic right here in Texas. We have computer scientists, engineers, and so forth. But what we also have are young women who have all the tools and the support they need to make great choices for their futures.
Do you consider Girlstart a startup? If so, what advice do you have for other budding entrepreneurs in this tech education space?
We aren’t a startup if we are thinking about Girlstart pre-COVID. But if we are looking at Girlstart through the lens of the pandemic, I think that there is a lot that we have to offer. We are redefining virtual learning. We have found the way to keep girls engaged and learning despite the screen. I don’t have much in the way of guidance for that other than if you’re interested in tech education, and you’re looking for STEM content, email me!
Because of COVID, the traditional Girlstart fall fundraiser lunch has morphed into a series of fall online events. “Under Pressure” author / New York Times columnist Dr. Lisa Damour kicks of this series on Tuesday, September 15. What message do you hope she will bring to the Girlstart community?
Personally, I have been recommending Dr. Damour’s books since I bumped into “Untangled.” And when “Under Pressure” was announced I preordered a copy. I am a high information person. I have one child and everything I do is because of her and for her benefit. She is, in fact, my everything. Parenting is hard for me when I don’t have answers (which is a lot of the time, to be sure). And because I do what I do in my work, I also know that people want to know what resources I find valuable in my life. “Untangled” was one of those books where I wanted to give a copy to all my daughter’s friends’ parents. But I couldn’t give them my copy, because I needed the book on a semi-regular basis. The book is never (especially now!) more than five feet away from me. So, I recommend it, because I want to give this resource to everyone to help them understand more about the complexity of the passage into adolescence and adulthood. And how we need to take a breath from time to time and realize that we don’t have all the answers. But by acknowledging where we have gaps, we can try to find things that help us get through. “Untangled” did that for me.
Who is your favorite role model for young women in the world of technology?
One is certainly Gwynne Shotwell. She’s not afraid to show you who she is. She’s not shy about the challenges that SpaceX faces. She’s not afraid to let a little humor be part of the mix. And she’s not afraid to talk about how her lived experience shapes what she believes.
But I also love Kara Swisher. Susan Fowler. Ellen Ochoa. Countless NASA inspirations. Emily Chang. I love truth-tellers. And I appreciate that they swim in a space in which they can luxuriate in the ability to just say what they think — because many cannot (or even if they do — who’s gonna listen?). But technology also could use a heavy dose of Mary Berry on any given day.
In 2020, there’s a lot of backlash against the toxicity of the tech industry, particularly the toxicity of some of the larger social media companies. Do you think that the next generation of women-led tech companies can do a better job of creating a more positive technological ecosystem?
Maybe. I mean, I probably should say ‘yes’, right? But that’s not fair and it misplaces the blame on a thing that really may not matter one way or another.
Part of the issue with toxicity isn’t about gender, it’s about creating an inclusive space for all of the people on your team. I’ve seen and worked in toxic environments led by many different kinds of people. Their similarity is the toxicity but that is the only thing that they share (other than possibly narcissism). Toxicity is, I think, a world view that people bring with them as they emerge into higher roles. They may not know that they are making this choice, but nonetheless, they are. By choosing this kind of ignorance, and not deliberately working on ensuring a safe, nurturing space for your team, you’re pushing people out, unwittingly or no. And that’s a failure of leadership.
I think that there is a sense of urgency in startup and in technology and in fast-moving innovative companies generally, and that may give tacit permission to the notion that you have to cut corners somewhere. Maybe you are ‘too busy’ to think about what a family leave policy is. Or how your Slack channel that you think is really cool or funny is painful or off-putting to others. It’s about not seeing the implications of your choices as a leader. That blindness/blindspot is at the root of the arrogance of toxicity and it can be hard to avoid, especially with limited people experience. Maybe it’s perceived as an acceptable tradeoff of startup or fast-moving companies.
But as a leader of an organization that has no ROI, I can say that caring for your team is the most important thing you can do, the most important choice you can make, and the most important investment that will pay off. By putting more resources into this particular choice, the next generation of companies have the opportunity to prioritize a positive ecosystem.
What is your vision for where Girlstart is in five years?
Stay alive, right? Grow — a little? A lot? Funding permitting. Maybe learn to do some new things because of the pandemic and see if we can reach more girls with Girlstart At Home programs!
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.