A group of young girls huddle around a sheet of paper speckled with a dark set of fingerprints.  Magnifying glasses in hand, they study the shapes and patterns of a clue. Across the room, another group uses iPhones to scan QR codes, receiving messages from senior agents at an off-site satellite base.  No, these girls are not being enlisted by the FBI to crack an international case…at least not yet, anyway. Solving mysteries using cutting-edge technology is all in a day’s work at Click! Spy School, an initiative of the Girls, Math & Science Program (GMSP), based at Carnegie Science Center.

Click! engages middle school girls ages 10–14 to become “agents-in-training” as they explore  science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Through summer camps, after school programs, condensed activity sessions, and online experiences, Click! allows girls to assume the identity of a “secret agent” on a covert mission to investigate a global crisis. Combining immersive storylines with practical applications, Click! fosters tactile-based inquiry, real-world problem solving skills, and career exploration in STEM. The Spy School provides critical informal science learning opportunities outside of the classroom, with a strong commitment to helping girls see themselves as future STEM professionals.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Conceived in 2005 by the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Click! Spy School focuses on three distinct areas of STEM—biomedical science, environmental protection, and expressive technology. In 2006, the Girls, Math & Science Partnership found a home at Carnegie Science Center.

“The Science Center is a hub for world-renowned education initiatives in STEM,” says John Radzilowicz, director of science at the Science Center. “With the Buhl Digital Planetarium, USS Requin, Rangos Omnimax Theater, and hundreds of hands-on exhibits, our campus is a center where young people can have experiences that inspire them for the rest of their lives. Click! is one of the programs of our Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development, which convenes industry leaders, educators, parents, and students to focus efforts to advance science literacy and cultivate the next generation workforce in STEM careers.”

In 2010, a Digital Media and Learning grant from the MacArthur Foundation allowed GMSP to translate the immersive Click! experience into a web-based interactive program to address the gender gap in online gaming. A virtual Click! Spy School was created, complete with female senior agents who mentor and communicate to “agents-in-training,” a chat function, and individual profiles. The online Spy School begins with solving an environmental crisis in Africa using digital “mini-games.” Using accessible and cost-effective online technology, the virtual Spy Camp removes the geographical barriers and allows girls from all walks of life to participate.

Using the city as a setting for adventure

On a typical day at a Click! camp, “junior agents” may be kayaking along the Ohio River, figuring out a whodunit at a local art museum like the Mattress Factory, writing a top-secret computer language, discovering sports science at Heinz Field, or touring a multinational corporation like Delmonte Foods. By venturing into their own backyard, Click! girls are able to connect international issues—like water quality, food shortages, and urban planning—to those that are happening in Pittsburgh.

“Agents-in-training” complete missions using core science methods while incorporating modern technology like iPhones, programming, mobile apps, gigapan imaging, and video conferencing. By the end of a Click! experience, girls have skills in fingerprint analysis, GPS location, water testing, collecting information, DNA testing, computer programming, calculating carbon footprints, and more. All programs are aimed at giving girls confidence in their ability to understand real-life applications of STEM, interpret information, collect and analyze data, construct explanations, design solutions, and obtain and communicate information.

“The girls get to become an international STEM professional, they even design a costume for their ‘passport photo’ and are asked to speak in character,” says Heather Mallak, Manager of Emerging technology  for Girls, Math & Science Partnership, who focuses on the play, design, and web-based aspects of the program. “A mission may involve building circuitry skills through an online game and then physically disassembling and rewiring an electronic. Mixing things up really keeps them interested.”

Since the program’s inception, Click! has reached more than 600 girls through onsite visits to the Science Center, partnerships with public and private schools, Girl Scout activities, community outreach, and afterschool programs.

Click! enlists all-star STEM “Senior Agents”

The Girls, Math & Science Partnership is led by Mallak; Nina Barbuto, trained architect and director of Assemble—a creative art space for children; scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin, PhD; and Zachary Koopmans, a mathematics Carnegie Mellon University grad and current engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There’s a lot of creativity with the Click! program, but it’s important for the story to be grounded in actual science,” says scientist-in-residence Sandlin Seguin. “It’s a big deal for these young girls to hear a scientist tell them you’re really good at this—you should be a scientist or yes, this is how I solve problems at work. Seeing them behave like scientists really validates what GMSP is doing through Click!

Partnerships like that with Seguin are instrumental to Click!’s success. A network of local and national female STEM professionals from esteemed companies and universities that regularly contribute to the Click! curriculum, guest counsel, serve as professional mentors, and act as cameo roles in the camps’ narrative.

Putting the emphasis on girl power, now and in the future

By now, it is no secret that girls rock. But, recent studies show that girls are not as likely to see themselves as STEM professionals as their male counterparts. In the Pittsburgh region alone, according to a 2003 study of career barriers for women and minorities commissioned by The Heinz Endowments, only 9% of women pursue science and technology degrees compared to 26% of men.  This local study reflects national trends, and further demonstrates the need for programs, like Click!, that get girls involved with STEM at a young age.  Early intervention is the first step in ensuring that women are proportionally represented in the workforce of the future.

Over the next decade, the U.S. Department of Labor says 7 of the 10 projected fastest growing occupations are in STEM fields. STEM professionals are expected to earn 26% more over their lifetime than those who work in non-STEM careers. While women still face obstacles in the workplace, arming young girls with the tools they need to succeed in male-dominated professions is one of the main objectives of the Girls, Math & Science Partnership.

GMSP and Carnegie Science Center aim to break down the barriers of education: income, race, socioeconomic status, and geography. In the near future, Click! programs will be offered to the next generation of innovators in England, India,  in a Pittsburgh neighborhood library…and everywhere in between. Satellite base camps are popping up all over the world, and “agents-in-training” are everywhere.

So, the next time you encounter a middle-school girl, see her as a leader, a scientist, a visionary. Because she just may be a secret agent, on a mission to change the world one covert assignment at a time.