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Retired Norwalk Teacher Wins AARP Award For Girls' STEM Program

Courtesy of AARP
Retired Norwalk science teacher Cynthia Barnett is one of five recipients of the 2017 AARP Purpose Prize.

Cynthia Barnett wants girls to know how to write code, build robots and hack computer programs. Barnett is a lifelong educator from Norwalk, Connecticut. When she retired from her job as a high school administrator, she was upset to see girls losing interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes. 

So she created the Amazing Girls Science program. AARP took note of her work and named Barnett one of five national winners of its Purpose Prize this year.   

WSHU’s All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner recently spoke with Barnett about her work and what she might do with that prize money. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Good afternoon.

Hi, good afternoon.

Each winner receives a $50,000 cash award…do you have any plans?

Absolutely! I’m going to be extending my program by offering a two-week summer program for high school girls. And it’s not just a camp. It’s going to be a program that’s going to last for four years. We will follow those girls to help them cope with high school, to help them achieve their own highest level and provide whatever resources they need to do that.

Let’s go back to the beginning here and tell us why you decided to dedicate your career to teaching?

Well, I’m an educator. And education runs through my DNA. And when I left the school system, I wanted to make a difference. And I read an article called, “Why So Few,” in other words, why so few women were going into the sciences. And a light bulb went off for me, that I could use all my experiences, all my expertise to create a program to ignite the spark in girls for STEM.

And when did you create Amazing Girls Science?

That started around 2008.

Does the program reach out to girls in the school system or do they come to you?

They reach out to girls through the school system, then by word of mouth from all over Fairfield County and even some places in New York. They come to my science conferences, where I get over 100 girls attending, twice a year. In the fall and in the spring.  

Is it different for a girl if she shows interest in STEM classes than it is for a boy who shows interest?

The only difference really is when we mix boys and girls together in STEM classes, especially in programs like robotics, boys tend to take over the programing and girls tend to sit back. But when girls have to build and program robots when it’s only girls, they have no choice but to do all the programing and do all the work that comes with that.  

You know, it appears that a lot of tech companies these days are trying to attract the attention of girls and women. There’s an ad that is currently running, I think it’s General Electric, it features a girl named Molly who relies on engineering to help her do her chores  She invents a way to take out the garbage and clean the house. Is this a sign that society is becoming more accepting of women in the sciences?

Yeah, absolutely. Especially after that movie, Hidden Figures, society is beginning to realize that women are not at the boardroom table. That women are not in positions where they can make changes. And so they are providing now more opportunities for girls, especially young girls, because those young girls are going to be doing the 21st century skills and those are where the jobs are.

Cynthia Barnett is a recipient of the AARP Purpose Prize. Cynthia, thank you so much for talking to us today and keep making the world a better place.

Thank you so much.  

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.