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Agnes Irwin, Franklin Institute collaborate to attract more girls to STEM majors, careers

The all-girl Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont wants its elementary-school students and young women to solve everyday problems in a way that could lead to an academic major or a career in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

Which led Agnes Irwin's students to solve the cafeteria problem.

"We had a real issue with lunchtime flow. The lunch period wasn't giving the students enough time to get their food and eat, "said Mariandl Hufford, director of Agnes Irwin's Center for the Advancement of Girls, formed inside the school in 2011. "So they set it up as an civil engineering project."

"The girls did surveys and interviewed everyone, trying out different solutions. Eventually, they created a new way of entering the cafeteria that was more efficient," she said.

Now the school is upping the ante. To hack the problem of attracting girls to STEM, Agnes Irwin will partner with the Franklin Institute to host the third annual conference, "Sharing Solutions: Advancing Girls in STEM," on Thursday and Friday at the Franklin Institute in Center City.

Why the exercise in the school's cafeteria?  It turns out that girls "are really engaged when they think what they're learning is relevant to their real lives. That's the way to a girl's heart and mind," Hufford added.

As a result, "about 40 percent of our recent senior classes indicated intent to major in STEM" in college," said Hufford. "That's much higher than the national average of about 20 percent.

"We believe it has to do with the fact that we are a school that emphasizes girls in STEM and our head of the school has a neuroscience background," she added.

But drawing girls into STEM must start early — as young as 7 years old.

"One of the philosophies we try is to shape their science identity at a very early age. We ask them: What do you want to know? What are you curious about? What are you wondering about?"

An increasing focus on women and girls in STEM in the last five years has prompted a national conversation. But at the same time, "we're still seeing that the STEM pipeline isn't always a friendly environment all the way through," Hufford said. Example: Uber is investigating claims by former female engineer Susan Fowler of sexual harassment.

This year's think tank and conference at the Franklin Institute will create opportunities to forge cross-industry connections across corporate, nonprofit and education lines to strengthen the pipeline of females entering STEM education and careers. (Tickets for the two-day event are $250. For more, see

Education leaders in K-12 public, private, charter and parochial schools, along with university administrators and researchers and senior corporate executives, are invited to discuss factors that impede the success of girls and women in STEM in the classroom and workforce, share best practices, and design partnerships for girls in STEM.

Speakers include Melinda Einsla, research scientist at Dow Chemical; Kim Cassidy, president of Bryn Mawr College; Olivia Haas, with the National Coalition of Girls' Schools; and Kendrick Davis, a Ph.D. student at Penn's Graduate School of Education and former director of STEM initiatives for the Mayor's Office of Education in Philadelphia.

"The conference is designed to really look at creating actionable ideas. so people walk away inspired and try one thing in this institution," such as "just-in-time' learning, which engages girls in STEM.

"Girls want to understand, 'Why am I learning all this stuff? Math and physics?' If they're learning to solve a problem in a physics class, just in time, they'll actually be more engaged. They'll persist longer. That's what we call 'just in time' learning," Hufford added.