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Alumnus founds nonprofit to engage girls in STEM

| Emily Wermund

In today’s evolving workforce, there is no doubt that a clear gender gap exists within the science and engineering fields. Even with the latest data showing that nearly 75 percent of middle school girls show an interest in science, math or engineering, less than one-third of females graduating from college pursue careers in those fields.

Todd Herbert ’80 and his wife, Jody, are co-founders of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Engaging Girls in STEM (EgGS). Founded in 2014, the EgGS Initiative aims to connect women currently working in STEM fields with high school girls who are at a critical exploratory stage in their education. By offering girls the resources and opportunities to interact with women who are successfully navigating STEM careers, they are exposed to role models and better equipped to more confidently pursue their own STEM academic and professional careers. To date, nearly 500 girls from more than 40 high schools have participated.

The EgGS are hatched

While Todd Herbert’s degree from UW-Eau Claire is in special education, he spent the majority of his career in corporate education and organizational development. Jody also has an educational background, having served as a school speech pathologist for nearly 35 years. As lifelong educators, they created EgGS in retirement, drawing upon their skill sets and professional networks.

It all started when the Herberts were approached by a close family friend to help bring female STEM professionals into a school to speak about their careers. The experience helped Todd realized there were not as many STEM professional women in his network, nor in the networks of others he reached out to for help. That one-time project became the genesis for EgGS.

“I knew STEM women were out there in leadership roles but they were in the shadows.”  

Although Herbert worked with and supported professionals in STEM fields during his career, he himself did not have a background in STEM. His professional interests had always been in the development of innovative educational programming as well as building things from the ground up. He and Jody share a passion for educational efforts  that support disadvantaged youth and wanted to find a way to stay involved in their community during retirement.

“The idea for EgGS kind of provided a way to both give back to our community and create something unique while drawing upon our years of experience as educators,” Todd says.

And thus, EgGS was created. Currently the focus is to offer Saturday networking events where high school students from multiple schools come together in a “speed-networking” style of small group roundtable discussions to learn from women in STEM. The emphasis is on pre-professional, non-technical skills women need to succeed in STEM fields.

“What makes our program exciting for the girls is being able to meet women in unique careers; ones they may never have considered before. But most of all, the experience helps high school girls begin to see themselves as belonging in STEM fields,”  Todd says.

EgGS is now exploring ways to support middle school girls and their teachers, which Todd and Jody feel is critical to really making a difference in the percentage of women in STEM careers. 

Setting the stage for success

Their flagship program, Prep-Pro (Preparing to be a Professional) Workshop, simulates a professional association meeting. Students work with female STEM professionals from a range of careers. The day is organized to encourage girls to begin seeing themselves as professionals. Workshops are held in business settings, and roundtable discussions focus on student questions, professional insight and stories from women in the field. Topics range from building professional networks to dealing with gender bias to exploring strategies for advocating for oneself to preparing for the college experience. The interactive nature of the workshops provides girls the chance to engage with students who share similar academic and professional goals.

Breaking the mold of tradition

“STEM fields have always been male dominated, and women were not and continue to not be given the same chance to demonstrate their capabilities and unique perspectives,” Todd says. “In part, it’s the way educators cover STEM related topics in the classroom, but it also has to do with business environments where women are not given the same opportunities men are afforded. Showing young women how to navigate such challenges is essential so that down the road STEM careers will be spoken in terms that are more inclusive.”

The EgGS initiative is designed to do just that; upend such stereotypes and offer young women a new model for what is possible.

The Herberts understand access to higher education can help to combat some of the unconscious biases that contribute to the gender gap. Todd believes universities and their faculty must overtly reach out to women to support and encourage their pursuit of a STEM degree and show them what is possible. It is the type of experience Todd credits UW-Eau Claire with having provided him — exposing him to new ideas while encouraging him to explore them further through classwork.

“I hope that UW-Eau Claire continues to challenge how students see the world and presents new ideas to understand the communities we share,” Todd says. “A good liberal arts education is one that helps a student explore his or her questions and offers guidance on how to find meaningful answers.”

For more information on Todd and Jody Herbert’s Engaging Girls in STEM initiative, visit the EgGS website at http://eggsinitiative.org/.