Women in Tech: Elizabeth Vandenburg from Girls Excelling in Math and Science Club (GEMS)

January 12, 2015

8:00 am

The Washington D.C. Metro Area is full of dozens of organizations dedicated to lowering the barrier for women and minorities in tech. DCFemTech, a collective of DC & Metro area women and minority focused organizations is launching a series of interviews with women in tech leaders to highlight their group’s mission, culture and events. The goal is to help women and minorities navigate the local tech scene to find a group that best fits their needs.

This week, we interviewed Elizabeth Vandenburg, Executive Director of GEMS Club (Girls Excelling in Math and Science).


The spark that began it all: A mother took action to keep her daughter engaged in STEM.
“Math is hard.” Those were the words that Julie Hill said to her mom back in 1994, on a visit to an arts and math magnet elementary school in suburban Washington, DC. Since Julie had good math test scores and good grades, her mother, Laura Reasoner Jones, knew that the message from talking Barbie—“Math class is tough”—and her ilk had gotten through. Jones took action: She launched an after-school all-girls club called Girls Excelling in Math & Science (GEMS) for Julie and her 5th and 6th grade classmates. Twenty years later, GEMS has clubs in almost every state as well as some internationally. GEMS has expanded its work to train parents to keep their daughters engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and to train teachers to combat gender stereotypes in the classroom.

From experiments to code and creativity, GEMS introduces thousands of local girls to STEM topics.
GEMS club gives many girls their first experience of using tools, mixing chemicals, writing code, wearing goggles, and making mistakes and laughing about STEM with a focus on technology. GEMS club leaders, too, have life changing experiences: the excitement of young girls understanding a difficult concept; the laughter as they experiment and explore the materials, and the eagerness with which they greet you each meeting. Girls are hungry for these kinds of  experiences; and GEMS Club leaders  are the lucky ones who gets to provide them and share their enjoyment. Clubs are loosely knit; we don’t require registration, etc as we embrace a grassroots model. Based on anecdotal data, there are 50 GEMS Clubs in Washington Metroplitan area; hundreds nationwide and even internationally. Their estimated reach in the DC area is 8,000 girls.

The community recognizes the impacts of single-gender groups and encourages girls to feel confident and excited learning about science and technology.
Research shows that girls function differently in single-gender groups, particularly when it comes to learning and experiencing things that are intimidating or perceived as difficult, such as science or technology. Girls want to learn math and science but can have classroom experiences that put them at a disadvantage. For example, many studies show that teachers pay more attention to boys or students who call out answers, rather than choosing students equitably. Other teachers may use girls as behavior management tools, requiring students to sit boy-girl so that the girls act as role models or conversation stoppers. Group work with mixed genders can be problematic, particularly with science and inquiry learning, with many boys taking over the experimental work, leaving the girls to take data or serve as the “recorder” for the group. Many girls tend to hang back in mixed gender groups, thereby losing the opportunity to engage hand on with STEM activities. Girls also tend to stop trying when things become difficult, thinking that they just can’t learn it.

Begin a GEMS club where the emphasis is on learning and having fun, not being the fastest or loudest.

Starting a GEMS club sends the message that girls can do STEM and that they are valued as a group and as individuals. This provides a risk-free environment where there is no competition other than doing their personal best. All girls get to do all of the activities, and all girls get to experience success. Girls leave GEMS Clubs meeting excited about their experiences and eager to share their learning with others. Examples of some topics taught are hardware concepts with “Computer Take Apart”, chemistry with “Egg Bungee Jumping” and viscosity with “Play with your food.”

IMG_0544Be a mentor or volunteer and share your love for technology with girls!
Girls in GEMS Clubs have:

  • Confidence to explore new things
  • Familiarity with tools
  • Persistence in the face of confusion or difficulty
  • Resilience in the presence of failure

GEMS Club Leaders:

  • Encourage girls to take the lead, to learn, and to have fun.
  • Don’t just introduce the STEM activities but do them with the girls.
  • Teach the girls to break things—an  especially important lesson in technology—and to dream big—there is nothing you cannot try.

If you love mixing chemicals, writing code, and building things or know that engineering is the coolest job—where you can solve problems and help people at the same time, join us! GEMS is a proud member of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) K-12 Alliance. Check out our website and like us on Facebook and Twitter.


Did you like this article?

Get more delivered to your inbox just like it!

Sorry about that. Try these articles instead!

Stephanie is Lead Designer and co-founder of Landmark, a navigation app for walking directions based on photos of buildings and landmarks. Stephanie was a guest at Y Combinator’s prestigious Female Founders Conference and was profiled in The Washington Post. Actively involved in the DC community, she is a co-producer of the DC Tech Meetup and is actively involved in encouraging technology education and mentorship for women. Follow her on Twitter @nguyenist.