Social Change Story: full STEAM ahead

Women’s Fund Grant Partners move the needle for positive social change & gender equality. To illuminate the grantmaking in action and the work being done for women and girls, we are bringing their stories to you.

Otterbein Women’s Leadership Network, known as “The NET”, is invested in the development of a network of women and girls who are working together to break down barriers to their success. NET provides a stream of educational, networking, and transformational leadership opportunities for girls, university students, and women community leaders. NET mobilizes over 700 participants and 90 organizations in our network through intergenerational opportunities. Participants develop a deeper understanding of how to navigate obstacles to their success while cultivating innovative leadership and advocacy skills.


We connected with Dr. Melissa Kesler Gilbert, Associate Dean of Experiential Learning at Otterbein University, to talk about NET and how their grant with The Women’s Fund has encouraged them to grow the network to cultivate new knowledge, creativity, and innovation. Below, they share their experience as a grant partner:

We have become a long-term partner because of the robust, intentional, and authentic relationships we have built with organizations across Franklin County who are part of the circle The Women’s Fund has created.  We value the intensity and restlessness of the women (and men) who support the important and essential work that is possible when we join together to make social change.

The STEAM Shift

This year, the NET has developed a specific focus on creating pathways for girls toward STEAM fields. The project started at the girl’s club level and culminated this summer with “Full Steam Ahead,” an all day social change innovation think tank for girls on Otterbein’s campus.  College mentor, Shelby Pacheco, shared her thoughts on how her new STEAM curriculum impacted the girls:

Shelby:  Girl Talk has created social change through education. The sixth grade girls had little idea about the wage gap or disparities in S.T.E.A.M. fields. They needed exposure to data about gender inequality, current social issues, and effective strategies to educate their peers. For example, while researching STEAM careers for posters to display at school, one girl found that even in the female-dominated fields of teaching and nursing, on average men still made more money than women. The girls couldn’t believe this statistic and turned their disbelief into action as it motivated them to look up more facts about gender stereotyping across different career choices. They had learned about the wage gap from my lesson plan and were using that knowledge to teach themselves and others. I think this knowledge alone allowed them to recognize injustices in their own worlds and confront them.

Several weeks later, over 130 middle and high school girls came together at Otterbein to confront injustice through a STEAM lens while innovating social change solutions to inequities in health, economics, the environment, education, and food. Their solutions were an essential reminder that change is possible when creative minds collaborate and keep asking why?  And now what?

STEAM knowledge and action matters because they are powerful tools that the girls are learning to use to dismantle gender norms and create social change. 


One of our college mentors, Haylie Schmoll, shares this analytical story about her insights into how the girl program has also created shifts in both behavior and school policy:

Haylie:  Middle School is often an awkward time as girls are trying to adjust to rigorous academics as well as find their place among their peers. Growing evidence shows that programs that shift from looking at what’s wrong to what’s strong by encouraging students to build upon their strengths, help them excel in multiple facets of their life.  Girl Talk, our girls club, helps girls deal with sensitive issues in a fun, light-hearted setting. By bringing out the best in each and every girl, they realize that they are valuable contributors to their community. Otterbein students are helping fight a deficit model of education by adopting a Strengths-based curriculum to help promote confidence, self-esteem and self-advocacy in the girls. The program has utilized the Gallup Organization’s Clifton Youth StrengthsExplorer, an online assessment that identifies areas in which students excel and have the potential to build upon their strengths, as a platform for helping boost confidence and self-esteem in the girls.  The impact of this program was inspiring:

  • The strengths curriculum created a common language for girls to communicate what they are good at to friends, teachers and family. Girls learned words that helped them describe strengths they knew they already had.
  • Terminology encouraged girls to convey their talents to others and because of it, they became more confident.
  • Girls were able to translate their confidence to the work they did in the classroom. 73% of the girls now know how to use their strengths to achieve excellence inside the classroom.
  • 82% of the girls agreed to the statement, “I recognize that I have qualities within me that will empower me to achieve more than I have ever achieved”
  • 91% felt prepared to achieve success in any circumstance life threw at them, even beyond the classroom as many now participate in sports, choir and leadership organizations.

Haylie’s work with the girls has inspired the school system to replicate our curriculum and move it into the other middle schools in the school system.  Just short of a formal policy shift, the commitment of the school system to the empowerment of girls and the development of their strengths is a bold new direction.

Dismantling Gender Norms: Girls Can Still Push Through

The most important work we do every day with the girls in our programs is the process of interrogating gender norms. Throughout the girl curriculum, from body image and healthy relationships, to education and career preparation, the gender question moves from the margin to the center. The open and overt strategies we use to illuminate gender disparities change the way that girls see themselves, and help them to understand that there are strategies to overcome the injustices.  One of our middle school participants, Vanessa, shares her insights into this new information about gender:

Vanessa:  The research we did on stereotypes showed me that women in the career I explored face sexism everyday and some women might face not being able to join a field because of their race, gender, or other stereotype. Women can be underestimated and men can be overvalued. On girl day at the STEAM center my favorite discussion was when we talked about breaking down the gender barriers we will all face as women. I liked making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, too, and the 3-D printers were cool, but what I really learned from the college women who are scientists is that if I work hard and put forth my best effort, I will become a doctor. There is no doubt. There are ways to break down barriers. We need to listen to ourselves and not others’ opinions, stick with what we want to do and not what others tell us we should do, listen to our hearts, be strong and follow our own path, stand up for yourself, for each other and against stereotypes. We can break down barriers by pushing the limits and working hard to prove others wrong.  Even in male dominated jobs, girls can still push through.

We need to continue to interrogate gender norms, but we must do so through the lens of intersectionality.  Vanessa shares with us her understanding that race, gender, and other stereotypes work concurrently to limit possibilities and create injustices.

The Ripple

This year’s work has helped us to create more momentum for a better networked women’s community. Our projects have occurred in partnership with several other organizations committed to the empowerment of women and girls. In 3-5 years we hope to see this network developing more formal commitments to share resources, fill gaps, and partner in the creation of institutionalized opportunities that educate and transform.  We will see the girls in our programs graduating from high school, following their hearts, dismantling gender norms, and pursuing education.  Our college students will have graduated and will be moving their leadership skills into graduate programs and careers, pushing through and breaking barriers.   

Joining the Effort

We would love to see more women from the Central Ohio community joining our efforts to educate and mentor young women and girls.  We invite women in to speak with the middle school girls on different topics each year and are always looking for friends in the community who are experts in their fields, role models, and change agents. For STEAM-related activities, we invite women innovators to join us next summer for the second year of Full Steam Ahead. We are building a network of women scientists, engineers, techies, and social entrepreneurs to join us in efforts to train girls to be social change makers. We are always looking for new mentors for our college students, community women leaders who will commit to a mentoring relationship with a young women embarking on their educational journeys.

For more information about The NET at Otterbein University, please visit their website  here or contact Dr. Gilbert at mgilbert@otterbein.edu