(TNS) -- Janice Stanley is pumped up, trying to get the most out of the group staring intently — but quietly — at her.
Stanley, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, uses robotic mannequins as a tool to train doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians and the like.
But on this afternoon, there are no health professionals seated before her, though they could be someday.
“Hi, guys,” the cheery Stanley says.
Then, instantly, she corrects herself.
The group is strictly female: 14 Girl Scout Cadettes from Troops 2653 and 3562 in Tustin, Calif. They’re all in middle school, and all made the trip to Kaiser in Irvine to earn the new My STEM Life badge from Girl Scouts of Orange County.
The badge was created for their age group, 11 to 14. And it is unique to Orange County.
The Girl Scouts and several local companies are teaming up to reduce the gender gap in the study of science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM).
Research shows that when they hit middle school, girls often turn away from STEM subjects. Most don’t go back, depriving themselves of future career options and the world of what women, in particular, can offer in technology and science.
“We’re leaving half the population out of the most exciting jobs of the 21st century,” says Paula Golden, president of Broadcom Corp. Foundation, the company’s charitable division.
“The way women work, think and innovate is traditionally very different from that of young men.”
Broadcom, a computer chip company, was the first of nine big local employers to join with the Girl Scouts in what is now called the STEM Consortium.
Broadcom saw the Girl Scouts as a good fit. And training girls in STEM is a smart investment.
About three-fifths of the fastest-growing jobs in Orange County are in the STEM fields, according to employment data.
About a fifth of the Girl Scouts in Orange County, roughly 4,000 middle-school-age girls, can earn the STEM badge.
Before the Girl Scouts visiting Kaiser get to the fun part of their excursion — working with Stanley on the robotic mannequins — they hear the numbers that illustrate the gender gap in geekdom:
Half of the nation’s work force are women, but they fill only a quarter of current STEM jobs. And women in STEM-related jobs earn 33 percent more in their paychecks than women in other fields.
“We could actually be doing what is fun, and make more money and be doing better for ourselves and our families,” Stanley tells the girls.
It’s not just girls and women who can benefit from STEM careers. Educators and industry leaders also have identified STEM learning as crucial to competitive innovation and to the country’s economic future.
The companies backing the My STEM Life badge kicked in $10,000 each — with an additional $15,000 from Broadcom — to develop the curriculum and activities required to earn the badge.
The STEM badge is designed to show girls how math and science learning relates to their everyday interests, from creating music playlists to building sandcastles. The program also points out that STEM education is necessary for jobs that require specialized training.
The consortium determined what should be emphasized in the program, from soft skills such as problem solving to more technical ones that include learning the innards of a computer.
Group activities include a hands-on look at medical care with Kaiser’s “SimMan 3G” mannequin and an ocean excursion off the Newport, Calif., coast to monitor fish populations, collect plankton samples and supply data for the Crystal Cove Alliance.
Girls are asked to pay a $5 fee for the excursions. The nominal fee covers administrative costs, and it holds the girls accountable to show up, says Lara Chard, senior program specialist for Girl Scouts of Orange County.
It’s unclear how many STEM badges have been awarded so far, but Chard says the Girl Scout store that supplies Orange County has sold about 300.
“I was one of those kids that maybe wouldn’t identify as a STEM girl,” says Chard, 33, who was a Girl Scout for 12 years.
“So, in working on this badge, one of the things I was thinking about was, would I do this? Is this something that I would have liked as a kid?”
In 2012, Girl Scouts of the USA published a report, “Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”
On the encouraging side, the report found that 74 percent of high school girls said they were interested in STEM subjects. On the discouraging side, the report also found that perceived gender barriers “are still high for girls.”
Those barriers are not just a perception.
Last year, at the annual Girl Scouts of Orange County gathering “Voice for Girls,” an educator asked girls what schools could do to keep them engaged in STEM learning.
One high school girl answered: “Well, you can make sure your teachers know our first names, too, and not just the boys’ first names.”
That answer stuck with Nancy Nygren, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Orange County.
“They’re getting discouraging messages from all sorts of places none of us would think would still be happening,” Nygren says.
Nygren, 60, knows through her own career what it’s like to be a girl who loves science.
In the late 1970s, straight out of college, she worked on the space shuttle program in Houston. She later worked as a software programmer in the defense industry before taking her skills to the nonprofit sector.
“I was young and blonde and female, and there weren’t that many of us,” she says of her days working in aerospace.
“That is changing, thank goodness.”
Just not fast enough.
Broadcom’s Golden says that’s partly because role models like Nygren are still too few, even at her own company.
“They don’t have a whole generation of mentors who can tell them, ‘Come over to Broadcom and see what it’s like to be an engineer.’
“From our perspective, these young women have no way to see their future.”
The girls who spent a couple of hours with Kaiser’s Stanley and SimMan 3G — and a newborn baby version of the remote-controlled mannequin — got an introduction to some basics of medical care and technology.
On the medical side, they donned sterile purple gloves and stethoscopes used in procedures such as checking SimMan’s vitals, administering chest compressions and shock treatment.
On the technology end, they manipulated SimMan’s computer program to alter his breathing (making his lips turn blue), make him cough and moan. They also got him to say things like “Doc, I feel like I could die” and “Go away.”
Girl Scout Taylor Duzel, 12, of Santa Ana, Calif., came away more convinced about pursuing a career in science. At the start of the meeting, she was one of only three girls in the group who raised a hand when asked about interest in a STEM career.
The seventh-grader is thinking about getting into medicine and enjoys her science class at Calvary Christian School. But the way she sees it, she faces one big hurdle.
It’s not what you think.
“I have a light stomach, so I have to get over that if I want to be a surgeon or doctor,” Taylor says.
“But I think I can do it.”
©2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.