Sunday 22 September 2019

Girl Guides: Social media and body image, and preparing young women for today's world

As the organisation partners with DCU on a Stem initiative, Kathy Donaghy looks at how it prepares young women for the world of today

Girl power: Keri Clarke (10) with her mum Déarbhla (right) and Christine Cumiskey, Girl Guide Leader (left). Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Girl power: Keri Clarke (10) with her mum Déarbhla (right) and Christine Cumiskey, Girl Guide Leader (left). Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Kathy Donaghy

If you thought that Girl Guides were all about tying knots and camping you'd be wrong. Today's Guides are learning about Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), discussing social media and body image, and collecting badges for architecture and engineering, as the movement focuses on preparing young women for the modern world.

The latest initiative the Guides are getting involved with sees them partner with DCU in a project called Iggies - Irish Girl Guides Innovatively Engaging with Stem.

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland, the project is going to focus on the development of Stem concepts relating to science, technology and engineering with seven to 10-year-old girls in informal settings. Leaders and Brownies from 20 Girl Guides units in the greater Dublin region will take part. This includes 40 leaders and 400 girls.

According to Professor Deirdre Butler, School of Stem Education, Innovation & Global Studies at DCU's Institute of Education who is leading the project, the girls will be supplied with kits that they can bring to their Brownies meeting each week and work in teams of four to conduct research projects relating to the real-world challenge of water sustainability.

Professor Butler says that by December it's hoped the Guides will be engaging with the project which will also see them design and build a model using Lego robotics to represent some aspect of their team's research project.

"I'm really excited about working with the Brownies on this. We decided to work with the Brownies because all the Stem research shows we need to focus on the younger girls.

Irish Girl Guide Keri Clarke (10) from Drogheda . Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Irish Girl Guide Keri Clarke (10) from Drogheda . Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

"By using creative technologies, they can externalise the solutions in interesting ways," says Prof Butler.

She says the Brownies are a great example of a movement with a national infrastructure that can be tapped into. "We will be able to work with Brownie leaders. The Brownies have women as role models who are working with the girls. I have a team of women waiting to work with them as well," she says.

And Professor Butler says the research shows that when supportive adults, such as parents, relatives, teachers, and mentors show an interest in Stem careers for girls, they make those fields seem much more realistic and feasible, rather than something untouchable or unreachable.

At the end of the project, the Brownies will get to present their research at a Lego robotics expo to be held in DCU's Institute of Education and be awarded a coveted IGG Brownie merit badge for robotics. And if it's successful it will be rolled out to the guiding movement nationwide.

Incorporating Stem: Keri Clarke with her mum Dearbhla (right) and Girl Guides Leader Christine Cumiskey. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Incorporating Stem: Keri Clarke with her mum Dearbhla (right) and Girl Guides Leader Christine Cumiskey. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

The Irish Girl Guides (IGG) Chief Commissioner Helen Concannon says they are reflective of society and want to be relevant to young girls today. "We are not stuck in the past. The girls lead us where we want to go. They're saying to us they don't get to do things like engineering and woodwork in school so this was how the Lego robotics came about. They are very much the drivers of what we do," says Helen.

A science teacher at Killinarden Community School in Dublin, Helen went through the Guides in Galway where she grew up. She says over the years she collected every badge and did every challenge and when the movement was being set up in Georgia, she was one of the eight selected to help them get their Guide movement up and running.

"The organisation is run by volunteers. We have 1,800 women who are voluntary leaders. They put in 100,000 hours a year to make sure the 12,000 members have the best chance to find out who they are and develop their skills," says Helen.

As well as the Stem programme, the IGG partnered with Engineers Ireland who helped develop the criteria for the engineering badges. They are currently developing an architecture badge.

"All the badges make the girls realise what they are doing in their everyday life and how to overcome challenges. They are unique in how they go about things - there's no right way or wrong way," says Helen.

She explains there are 121 badges across all the age groups, covering everything from book lovers to Irish culture to voting.

At a summer camp at Rockwell College last year, 1,600 Guides from 12 countries attended and one of the themes was 'What do you want to be?'. Helen recalls it was a "really powerful" experience because they had a cast of speakers who told the girls they could be anything they wanted.

In recent years, the IGG has been running a programme called 'Free being me' which is aimed at improving girls' body confidence and boosting their self-esteem. The idea is to try and empower girls to be comfortable in their own skin in an age where they are bombarded with images of the 'perfect' body.

Helen says giving girls confidence by empowering them is what the movement is all about while making friends and getting badges to remind you of how well you've done along the way.

Dearbhla Clarke from Drogheda, whose daughter Keri is a Brownie, says she has seen her child's confidence grow since she joined the IGG at the age of eight. "The leaders are supportive and there's no judgement. They listen to everyone in their group and only one person speaks at a time. It's very inclusive - there are different religions in the group. It's just a really positive and supportive environment," says Dearbhla.

She says the environment is one where nobody gets left out and cliques don't form because the leaders mix all the girls up.

Keri is looking forward to working towards her engineering badge. She became interested in the subject when another girl's dad came into their meeting and gave a presentation about what he did.

"I love building stuff and I love going to Brownies. You make new friends and I've learned loads of things," says Keri, who goes to Scoil Aonghusa in Drogheda.

Mum-of-five Christine Cumiskey was involved in guiding in her native New York as a young girl before moving to Ireland. Now her three daughters Emily (22), Maggie (20) and Nicole (18) have come through the Guides and are leaders themselves, with Nicole in training. Christine leads two groups, one in Drogheda and one in Dundalk, where she lives.

With the younger groups, she says it's amazing to see how much they change in the space of a few years. "Their confidence in themselves is just blooming. The whole programme is based on developing their confidence. Respect is also a huge thing. We are constantly reminding them to respect each other," says Christine.

When new groups begin, they sit down with leaders and decide the rules of their group. "A lot of it would be respecting everyone, listening to others, not speaking when someone else is speaking and not making fun of anyone," she says.

"You really see them developing their problem-solving skills and their life skills. It's a safe place for them. They can try out all kinds of activities and different skills without being judged.

"It's so empowering for them because they have leaders who are self-confident women who show them they can be anything they want," says Christine.

"There's so much more to guiding than putting up tents. It's about decision making and global awareness, and being part of a world community."

Irish Independent

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