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MOBILE, Ala. — MacKenzie Brackett, 14, held up a toothbrush ready for transformation. “We’re going to finish up our robotics badge by making a toothbrush robot,” she announced to four fellow members of Mobile, Alabama’s Girl Scout Troop 8274 in June. Under her khaki uniform vest MacKenzie wore a T-shirt featuring the periodic table, with the slogan “PERIODICALLY I’M SARCASTIC.”

MacKenzie’s mother began snipping the heads off toothbrushes while co-leader Evelyn Toler, 14, stood ready to demonstrate to three members on Zoom.

“I am He-Man, I have the power,” Alyssa Edwards muttered, looking at her battery. “Or She-Ra.” Switching sci-fi references, she looked at her battery’s V-splayed wires and held up her hand in the Spock sign. “Live long and prosper,” she said.

Girl Scouts of the USA has lived long, and it has prospered.* The organization dates back to the early years of the 20th century and boasts alumnae as groundbreaking as Sandra Day O’Connor, Mae Jemison, Queen Latifah, Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Condoleezza Rice. But now, it is threatened by multiple factors, including the Boy Scouts going coed, the Covid-19 pandemic and, ironically, the success of feminist movements that made the core Girl Scout mission of girls’ empowerment mainstream. Membership has been declining, and the organization’s efforts to increase diversity have not borne significant fruit: Girl Scouts remain disproportionately white.

Troop 8274 faced a more immediate challenge, imposed not from without but within. In second grade, MacKenzie and Evelyn hived off from a (to their minds) insufficiently ambitious Brownie troop because they wanted to earn every badge in the book. And it looked like they were on track to do so. But, as the core of the troop finished eighth grade, they still needed to earn 16 Cadette badges, and had only eight weeks to do it.

Their mothers felt nervous. The girls felt confident. “The positive wire is longer than the negative wire,” MacKenzie instructed her troop-mates as they stuck batteries onto their toothbrush heads, ready to motor.

MacKenzie Brackett demonstrates a toothbrush robot wiring technique to three troop members attending via Zoom Credit: Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

As befits the grand dame of girls’ empowerment, what became the Girl Scouts has been standing up for itself from the start. The seeds for the organization were planted more than 100 years ago when a group of British girls showed up at a Boy Scouts event in the U.K. and staked their own claim to Scouting, according to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Rather than include them, the founder of Scouting in the U.K., Robert Baden-Powell, created a separate organization. Juliette Gordon Low of Savannah, Georgia, introduced the group to the U.S. soon after.

Science was in the new organization’s DNA. The very first badges, in 1913, included Naturalist, Electrician and Health. The curriculum prepared girls for service to the country, not primarily to a husband and children. That may owe something to Low’s unhappy marriage: She was in the process of divorcing her husband when he died, according to biographer Stacy Cordery. The 1920 handbook presented homemaking as just one option for adulthood, along with working as a nurse or a naturalist or in defense. Before Girl Scouts sold cookies, they sold Liberty bonds.

Related: OPINION — How to get girls into science

To solve its current problems, the organization is drawing on its original strengths: leadership and STEM. These days, it’s not a great idea to join a badge-focused troop like 8274 if you’re notinto science: Close to half the Girl Scout badges focus on the subject. Next come outdoor adventures, entrepreneurship, civics and wellness, along with some art-focused badges. The national office says it updates badge options based on what girls want — Evelyn Toler is on a feedback panel — and evidently girls want science. From 2019 to 2020, close to 90,000 girls earned the new Think Like a Programmer, Coding for Good and Cybersecurity badges, Striegel said.

The Girl Scouts treats STEM its way: with an emphasis on changing the world. Along with following the organization’s longstanding commitment to public service, that stance aligns with research that shows that girls are more likely to stay involved in science when they see it as relevant to their own lives and as a way to improve their communities. (Or to become Hermione Granger, perhaps: One of the Gulfcoast Florida council’s most popular activities is “Mischief Managed,” in which girls program magic wands and brew potions.)

“No other organization matches the scope and variety of evidence-based, out-of-school educational and leadership opportunities.”

Eman El-Sheikh, University of West Florida

To compare, the Boy Scouts Programming badge, which Scouts may start as early as age 11, is impressively technical, requiring the writing of code in several languages. Girl Scouting offers three-badge Coding for Good sequences for all six of its age brackets, even kindergarten-level Daisies. At the middle-school level, Girl Scout Cadettes learn the grammar of coding — algorithms, arguments, functions and arrays— but they learn the basics of just one language, JavaScript, focusing instead on women computer science champions and conceptual design. “Every stage of the coding process offers girls opportunities to use their skills for good,” the Girl Scouts website says.

Even for the Space Scientist badge, a topic that is otherworldly by definition, Girl Scouts have to connect to their community, perhaps by presenting at a stargazing club, performing a “space show” for family and friends or teaching younger Scouts. The national organization makes a point of noting that almost every woman who has flown in space is a Girl Scouts alumna.

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Though less technical than the Boy Scout badges, the science in the girls’ badges is not dumbed down. Curriculum partners include NASA, Dell, Raytheon, VEX Robotics and FIRST Robotics. The University of West Florida Center for Cybersecurity team put on a virtual Girl Scouts camp in June with a curriculum based on both the Girl Scout badges and the National Security Agency’s GenCyber standards, said Eman El-Sheikh, associate vice president for the Center for Cybersecurity.

El-Sheikh thinks it makes a difference when girls learn about science in Girl Scouts instead of through another kind of club or at school. “Absolutely!” she said. “No other organization matches the scope and variety of evidence-based, out-of-school educational and leadership opportunities, including those in STEM, specifically designed for girls.”

The overarching goal is to increase women’s leadership in the sciences, just as Girl Scouts has helped launch women into political leadership. There’s a brand-new Digital Leadership badge. The cybersecurity field will soon have millions of unfilled jobs, and “women are grossly underrepresented,” especially among its leaders, the Girl Scouts Research Institute reports.

Even now, the Girl Scouts are unique, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director for Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. Year in and year out, no other organization has been as proactive as the Girl Scouts in reaching out to the center, or as focused on girls’ political leadership. A lot of women politicians are former Girl Scouts, and “they alwayswant to talk about their Girl Scout service,” she said. On National Girl Scout Day in 2018, Sen. Tammy Duckworth posted a photo of her badges on Instagram.

Mom Bernadette Toler is keeping track of the girls’ progress towards their badge goals. Credit: Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Peer support makes an enormous difference in promoting girls’ ambition, Sinzdak said. In Girl Scouts, just at the age that girls’ confidence begins to fall off a cliff, “they continue to get that focus on leadership,” she said. “It’s a place where they can unapologetically be girls and be leaders.”

Troop 8274 puts that into practice. With its members in middle and high school, the mothers who formerly planned activities have taken a back seat. The girls plan, prioritize, teach and execute; their mothers guide and remind, shop and drive.

Tori Marks, 16, enjoys it much more than her old troop, which did “very childish” things, like making “this turkey platefor Thanksgiving,” she said with scorn. “It wasn’t very creative.” Tori loves the science and math in Troop 8274, and spoke proudly of her community service awards. Girl Scouting “gives me a chance to work with other girls … to make the world a better place,” she said, echoing the Girl Scout Law.

And without boys around, “You can do whatever you want and you don’t have to worry about being judged,” Tori said.

Troop 8274 has done a lot. MacKenzie and Evelyn showed off photo album after photo album, badge after badge. The mega-badge commemorating Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low’s life, which they worked on one Sunday per month for a year. The book drive. The trip to Disney on Ice that they paid for by cookie sales. (“That’s when I went through my cat’s ears phase — remember?”) The signs they carved for a Scout camp using a wood router. The forensics badge, featuring disgustingly realistic spatter made from Crystal Light powder. The time Evelyn capsized her DIY recycled-material boat, and got the award for “best swimmer.”

All memorialized in embroidery thread on a vest.

Some of the patches the girls earned as Juniors, plus a new patch from their Memorial Day hike.

Even so, igniting that excitement and loyalty among more girls has been a challenge in a changing nation. A decade ago, Girl Scouts raised its age range and created the Ambassadors category, so girls may Scout from kindergarten until college. But even so, membership numbers keep going down: from 2.3 million in 2010 to 1.7 million girls in 2019, according to annual reports. That’s not the case for afterschool activities in general, National AfterSchool Alliance president Gina Warner said; she theorized that some other extracurriculars offer “much-needed care for working parents,” whereas Scouting relies on parent volunteers.

Then there’s big brother elbowing in. The Boy Scouts made its core programs coed in 2018. More than 140,000 girls have joined since then, participating in all-girl dens, BSA spokeswoman Stephanie Lish said. This year, the organization inaugurated its first female Eagle Scouts. (It published a special edition of its 110-year-old youth magazine, newly renamed from Boys’ Life to Scout Life, honoring them.) Girl Scouts spokeswoman Julia Striegel declined to comment on whether the Girl Scouts viewed the Boy Scouts’ move as a threat — but the all-girls’ organization has sued for trademark infringement.

Nor has the Girl Scouts had significant success diversifying its membership. The organization had an ignoble early history of supporting white supremacy, a history it shares with other youth groups. The 1920 edition of “Scouting for Girls” included Robert Baden-Powell’s racist statements valorizing white dominance, and Southern councils were all-white until Josephine Groves Holloway pushed for the recognition of Black membership in the 1940s, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Fittingly, a local Girl Scout troop recently helped erect a historical marker for Holloway in Nashville.

Related: Just 3% of scientists and engineers are Black or Latina women. Here’s what teachers are doing about it.

The national organization now hails Holloway as a heroine and has made efforts to recruit a more diverse membership. There are already some areas that are more diverse than the organization as a whole, such as Spanish-speaking troops and council-organized empowerment summits featuring women of color. Even so, the Girl Scouts remained 71 percent white as of 2017, counting both adult volunteers and girls.

After George Floyd’s murder, the then-Girl Scouts president, Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, wrote, “Councils must, at a minimum, reflect the diversity of their respective communities.” Striegel, the spokeswoman, said GSUSA is committed “to becoming an antiracist organization.”

Evelyn Toler, left, holds the Zoom session camera up. She and MacKenzie, right, started Troop 8274 when they were in second grade because they wanted to earn all the badges. So far, they are on track to do so. Credit: Danielle Dreilinger for The Hechinger Report

Finally, there’s the enrollment impact of the pandemic. Striegel would not say how many Scouts hit pause last school year. The Associated Press reported that Girl Scouts youth membership fell by 30 percent, and that Boy Scouts of America lost close to half its 2.2 million members said. Councils leaned on Zoom and YouTube, and created “Scouting at Home” options that spanned everything from local troops making videos in their kitchens to curriculum by companies such as Cabot Dairy to a Latina leadership panel to virtual summer camp. Zoom allowed Troop 8274 to hold on to members who moved out of state.

Even so, Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida lost about 1,500 of its almost 5,000 girls, leaving insufficient numbers to staff the usual supermarket cookie sale tables, Kelly McGraw, Gulfcoast member experiences director, said. That meant the group “only had 2,000 girls selling cookies this year,” she said. “I had stores calling me, ‘Where are the girls?!’” Nationally, 15 million boxes of Girl Scout cookies went unsold this year, according to the Associated Press, even though bakeries decreased production.

“You can do whatever you want and you don’t have to worry about being judged.”

Tori Marks, Girl Scout, 16

Can Girl Scouts rebound from this latest blow? The national office is, naturally, optimistic. Almost all summer camps sold out this year, Striegel said, and 370,000 girls renewed their membership in April, the best month in some time. She did not clarify whether that number included girls returning after a pandemic pause.

Making Lemon-Ups out of lemons, the Gulfcoast council created a reconnection patch to encourage Scouts to lure back their friends with activities such as creating an elevator pitch and a commercial for Scouting. Along with regaining troopmates, the girls would learn entrepreneurship skills.

In Mobile, the reconnections were faulty — the electrical ones, that is. Evelyn, MacKenzie, Alyssa and her sister, Adrienne, looked perplexedly at Tori’s toothbrush-head robot, their lone success, which proudly lit up and vibrated. The other robots would do one or the other, but not both.

“Mine’s not working. It’s a disappointment,” Evelyn said.

“Mine starts when I touch it. I am the battery,” Alyssa said, taking the positive view.

No one seemed that let down, though. They had a rock-climbing trip to plan and a lawnmower robot to design, like a Roomba but for grass. Seven badges to go.

This story about Girl Scouts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the full name of the Girl Scouts.

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