UNO and Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska helps girls explore the college and future career field


Elle Love 

Girl Scouts explore the STEM field and future careers. Graphic by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

While the first things associated with Girl Scouts are their cookies, this organization is providing a lot more to its scouts than Thin Mints.

The proceeds from the sales go back into the community or help fund the Scouts’ camping trips and workshops. And, there are new workshops that Girl Scouts have recently incorporated to help girls with future college and career development, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

“The girls get 60 cents from every box and that stays with the girl’s troop,” said Shannon O’Neill-Peterson, a marketing strategist for Girls Scouts Spirit of Nebraska. “All the proceeds stay in Nebraska but that’s the percentage that goes directly to the troops.”

O’Neill-Peterson said the four areas that form the foundation of the Girl Scout Leadership Experience are STEM, Outdoors, Life Skills and Entrepreneurship.

“We really focus on STEM for the last couple of years to try to get girls into that career field,” she said. “There’s so much opportunity, but it is so male-dominated that we really make sure to work hard to make it more inclusive for them.”

Over the years, the Girl Scout National Organization has unveiled many badges that are focused on STEM activities in the camps and programs offered, including mechanical engineering, robotics, cybersecurity and many others. Each badge has multiple steps each troop must follow to earn them.

“Last year, we did Camp Invention where girls spent a week at day camp, just learning about inventing things, building and creating,” O’Neill-Peterson said. “There are special one-day programs where they could do STEM activities.”

Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska teamed up with the University of Nebraska at Omaha to create the Magic of Chemistry program to help ignite girls’ interests in science. Workshops are held in the Durham Science Center where junior Girl Scouts complete experiments.

“There is another program called ‘Girl Meets STEM’ and it takes place across the state. And each one does their own thing, but the main focus is the special STEM project and introducing girls into STEM,” O’Neill-Peterson said.

Peterson said while Girl Scouts work with both the chemistry and physics departments at UNO on badges and programs, she worked closely with UNO STEM Instructor Krista Testin for planetarium visits.

Testin said she has volunteered for Girl Scouts through her job at UNO and has a daughter who participates in the organization as a scout. She does planetarium shows on a troop-by-troop basis.

“A lot of the programs that the Girls Scouts in the Omaha area offer occur here on campus,” Testin said. “I was never a Girl Scout so it’s fairly new to me, but I was really active in the last three years and it’s an evolving project.”

Originally, Testin said her daughter just wanted to join Girl Scouts. But Testin’s job at the UNO Planetarium gave her the opportunity to take a group of girls as a co-leader to visit NASA.

During Testin’s experience visiting the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a Troop Co-Leader, she learned a lot about NASA along with the Scouts and how to involve Girl Scouts into the Beyond Our World Astronomy Club.

The program “Reaching for the Stars: NASA Science for Girl Scouts” is supported by NASA under a cooperative agreement with Girl Scouts of USA to bring informal space science education to Scouts and volunteers across the country.

Even though Testin praises the efforts of encouraging young women’s interests in the STEM field, it presents challenges. Part of Testin’s graduate program capstone is to keep women interested in the STEM sciences through showcasing the creativity in the field in her work.

“The hardest part is to keep a female’s interest because usually by the time they hit junior high, it tapers off,” Testin said. “The goal is to keep that interest, passion and excitement alive.”

A few barriers that shy young women away from the STEM field include gender bias, stereotypes, workplace harassment and the climate of science and engineering departments in other colleges and universities, according to the American Association of University Women.

“Girls that are young are very interested in STEM activities but the older they get, the less that interest sticks with them or they feel intimidated and they think of it more as a boys’ field,” O’Neill-Peterson said. “If you can really catch them while they’re young and keep them going with it, they can recognize some of those opportunities that are just out there waiting for them.”

O’Neill-Peterson said one of the best ways to support Girl Scouts is through their cookie sales. She said if the girls aren’t out to sell cookies near a supermarket, you can always find where the cookies are close to you through the Girl Scout Cookie Finder app.

“If you have your location set, it will show all the cookie booths near you,” she said. “We also have a form on our website that says, ‘Contact me about cookies’ and just fill out your name and phone number, and we will match them with a girl in their area to contact them.”

The next time you decide to purchase Girl Scout Cookies, remember you’re helping a young girl get one step closer to finding a successful career path—whether that’s in STEM or another field.