It’s just after 3:30 p.m. on Monday at Oakland Tech. Many of the large public high school’s 2,100 students, eager to be done with the first school day of the week early in the year, have already streamed out into a perfect 74-degree Northern California afternoon.

Inside, 25 girls are now seated around tables in pairs or clusters of four. A few strip and cut wires. Others tinker with tiny Light bulbs, coin cell batteries and conductive tape. Slowly, the LED-equipped wind chimes that the teams designed themselves are taking shape, some working a bit better than others at lighting up when the breeze blows.

By the end of the year, the girls who graduate from the Techbridge after-school program will have experimented with Arduino electronics platforms, breadboards, 3-D printers, soldering irons and other tools that any electrical engineer or maker would know. Some of the nonprofit’s 14 after-school programs in the San Francisco Bay Area will have girls practice programming and dismantle hairdryers. At others, they’ll take apart lawn mowers and build biomass-burning stoves for families who need them in underdeveloped countries on the other side of the world.  

“We’ve made a space just for girls to see that it’s fun and cool to work on tech things and to complete projects that are hard,” says Dr. Linda Kekelis, Techbridge’s CEO and executive director. “They learn skills by being hands-on, and they have a thing to bring home at the end of the year that makes it so cool to them.”

Techbridge and hands-on programs like it are cropping up around the country to address a yawning imbalance that exists between the sexes employed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Even though they make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study. In fact, while they fill around 40 percent of all physical and life science positions in the U.S., they hold only 14 percent of engineering jobs, and make up only 27 percent of computer and mathematical science workers.

Numerous studies point to a broken pipeline that should be encouraging girls into STEM certification programs or academic studies and then onto internships and jobs. Females are exiting at every major junction: girls are losing confidence in their skills in middle school and losing interest in technical fields in high school; fewer women than men are seeking out these degrees at the associate’s and bachelor’s levels; and those who do earn a degree are less likely than their male peers to get STEM jobs and then rise into management.

Fixing the imbalance, though, is more than just an issue of gender representation in schools and the workforce. There are also significant cultural and economic drivers pushing the movement to get more females into STEM. Experts say an important step to diminishing persistent pay inequality between men and women lies in the STEM professions. Right now, American women on average make around 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women working STEM jobs, meanwhile, earn 92 cents for every man’s dollar, according to a report produced by advocacy group Million Women Mentors, which looks to boost female involvement by matching young people to mentors and role models already in the field.

“Thirty of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills. Our nation won’t be competitive if half the population isn’t contributing up to its potential,” says Edie Fraser, CEO of Million Women Mentors. “This is an economic issue.”

Engineering, biotechnology, statistics, computer science and other such fields are at the center of the new and revitalizing U.S. economy. A 2013 Brookings Institution study found that some 26 million jobs in the U.S. require “a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.” That importance will continue to grow, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently predicting that there will be around 1 million more STEM jobs in 2022 than there were in 2012.

Along with Million Women Mentors, Fraser runs a group focused on corporate STEM development, education and investment called STEMconnector. The organization now includes more than 400 corporate partners, from 3M to Chevron to Facebook and General Electric, which are working together to increase the proportion of women they employ in technical fields.

One new program that is being launched to get more girls interested in STEM early on is a collaboration between Kekelis’s Techbridge, Chevron and the Fab Foundation, an organization that supports innovation, invention and learning centers around the world. The group has opened a Fabrication Lab (Fab Lab) at the California State University campus in Bakersfield that is designed to appeal to girls’ imaginations and interests.

"The largest disconnect for children today is really understanding how a degree in the STEM field translates into a career,” said Stephanie Reeves, an engineer at Chevron North America Exploration and Production, as she watched the girls exploring the disassembled electronics at the Bakersfield Fab Lab earlier this fall.

Hands-on learning at the Chevron-sponsored Fab Lab at California State University, Bakersfield

“It’s really cool that we get to design something new,” said 13-year-old Emma McNellis, who is trying to decide whether to be an orthopedic surgeon or an engineer. “We can actually create the things that people buy from the stores or create the cameras we’re using right now.”

Blair Blackwell, Chevron’s manager of education and corporate programs, says the company spent $100 million over the past three years on education projects like Fab Lab. The company has pledged to contribute another $30 million over the next three years to such programs, some of which focus exclusively on inspiring girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM.

“Right now, we’re missing out on a lot of talent, so STEM education for girls is important for the communities we operate in and for our workforce down the line,” Blackwell says.

Her team has been examining the efficacy of different methods to get girls into the pipeline. In particular, they look for science and math programs like the Fab Lab and Techbridge partnership that feature project-based, hands-on learning combined with a strong element of mentorship. They believe these interactive teaching methods and mentoring have shown that they can earn real dividends. Techbridge’s surveys, for instance, have found that 89 percent of girls who completed the program felt their confidence in being able to succeed in the sciences grow. 96 percent of respondents thought of engineering as a good career for women.

“A kid shouldn’t be limited by where they are born or what gender they are,” says Techbridge’s Kekelis. “Every girl should be able to dream about what she wants to be and have the resources available to make her way toward fulfilling those dreams.”