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One shop class at a time, a St. Louis group is getting young girls interested in STEM

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Historically, there have been far fewer women in the science, tech and math fields than men. That gap is even wider for women of color, partly due to lack of access and exposure early on. St. Louis Public Radio's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson reports on a local nonprofit youth organization in St. Louis hoping to change that, one shop class at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCULAR SAW)

MARISSANNE LEWIS-THOMPSON, BYLINE: The sound of a circular saw and the banging of rubber mallets echoed throughout the LitShop. About a dozen middle and high school girls are racing against the clock to finish their mini-golf hole for the annual Golf the Galleries installation at The Sheldon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALLET BANGING)

LEWIS-THOMPSON: They're going all-out for their custom L-shaped skate-rink-themed golf hole. There's a neon psychedelic carpet next to a sleek wood panel floor that mirrors a real-deal roller rink. There's even an eye-catching giant roller skate. Thirteen-year-old Hanaan Pettus is eager to reap the rewards of her work after months of planning.

HANAAN PETTUS: Like, building everything is, like, super-duper hard to do. But, like, it's all worth it when you get to see, like, everything that's finished. And, like - especially with the golf hole that we're building, it's so - the reason I keep coming back, even though it's so hard to do, is that when you're done, and you get to go play the golf hole that you made, it's, like, super rewarding.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: This is one way Kelli Best-Oliver, the founder and executive director of the LitShop, is working to get more girls excited about science and technology, along with engineering and math. She created LitShop back in 2019 as a space for girls to improve their literacy skills and get hands-on exposure to the world of shop class, especially construction. It's something she says is missing in a lot of schools.

KELLI BEST-OLIVER: It is out of their frame of reference or even conceptualization that tools they see being used by adults is something that they can safely do on their own.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: In recent years, roughly 75% of Gen Z youth were interested in pursuing a STEM career. That's according to a 2023 report from the Gallup and Walton Family Foundation. But only 29% selected it as their first career choice. The report says a lack of access and exposure is responsible for that number.

BEST-OLIVER: We also know that, if we look at it from a more technical or STEM perspective, less than 25% of youth maker space experiences are experienced by girls, and that falls off dramatically after eighth grade.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: That's why LitShop has been intentional about prioritizing middle- and high school-age girls. Take 16-year-old Taubah Pettus. She's been in the program since its inception.

TAUBAH PETTUS: Because I find that it allows me to apply my interest in math and, like, actually get practical use out of it instead of just sitting and solving, like, hypothetical questions all day. I get to actually play around with my math.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: But not everyone who was in LitShop, like 14-year-old Tessa Link, wants to pursue construction as a career. Link aspires to be a surgeon one day. And she says, while she's been encouraged by the progress made...

TESSA LINK: There is still so much lack of women in, like, fields like construction and architecture and engineering. And I really think it's important for young girls to get educated in this field because it's not really very common, even in this time, you know?

LEWIS-THOMPSON: There have been efforts across the country to increase the number of women - especially those that marginalized groups - in STEM fields. And Best-Oliver says she and her team are preparing the girls for the real world by equipping them with the skills and confidence to succeed.

BEST-OLIVER: Even if they're entering an all-male workforce, they have rights. They have worth. They have value.

LEWIS-THOMPSON: Best-Oliver says she hopes the more girls they can get to enter the workforce with that mindset, the sooner workplaces can change for the better.

For NPR News, I'm Marissanne Lewis-Thompson, in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson