Too few girls are getting a STEM education, and Girlstart and FlowPlay have teamed up to help change that.

From now until Jan. 5, players of FlowPlay’s online social games, Vegas World and OurWorld, can buy in-game items that will directly fund Girlstart, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit on a mission to empower girls in science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s hoping the extra funding will help more girls see a career in STEM, very much a male-dominated area, as something they can actively pursue.

Girlstart is especially focused on reaching girls who are economically disadvantaged, at risk of academic failure, or who come from a nonwhite background. “Girls who are the least likely to pursue STEM and who may have limited STEM learning resources at home,” Girlstart deputy director Julie Shannan told GamesBeat via email.

“But it is certainly true that all girls, regardless of their background, are underserved in STEM,” added Shannan. “All girls need and deserve encouragement and enrichment in STEM, especially if we are going to address the gender imbalances in the STEM workforce.”

Girlstart has run since 1997, and Shannan says that the percentage of women in the STEM workplace has remained largely unchanged during that time: “Since 2000, women’s share of the STEM workforce has increased by exactly 0 percent. Nationwide, only 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women — the same as in 2000.”

The biggest barrier facing girls in pursuing STEM education and STEM careers is “a lack of encouragement to persist in a STEM field,” according to Shannan. She says that girls who never get a chance to see they can excel at STEM, and who don’t have strong female role models to follow are highly unlikely to pursue a STEM education.

“This is why Girlstart provides an all-female environment, encourages girls to try again even when their experiments fail, and does our best to introduce girls to female role models in STEM,” she said.

Shannan is optimistic about what the future holds for women and girls in STEM, though, pointing to greater interest in funding programs like Girlstart as STEM becomes a national education priority. “We’re also thrilled to see the price of many technologies coming down, and even free programs, like MIT’s Scratch, becoming available,” she said, “which means that cutting-edge experiences like 3D printing and app development are accessible to many more girls than in the past.”

I asked Shannan how effective the Girlstart programs are at helping girls enter STEM education and finding them jobs in the field. She pointed to the high success rate of Project IT Girl, an after-school program for girls attending Austin high schools. “One of Girlstart’s past programs, Project IT Girl, had a great success rate,” said Shannan. “Eighty-nine percent of participants went on to a four-year university, with 80 percent pursuing STEM majors.”

OurWorld on Android.

Above: OurWorld on Android.

Image Credit: Google Play

It’s no coincidence that Girlstart has partnered with FlowPlay. The Seattle-based developer’s OurWorld social game boasts more than 800,000 active users, 65 percent of whom are female and 80 percent under the age of 18.

“Part of our philosophy is that girls can be true to who they are and pursue STEM interests, and OurWorld provides an environment that fosters that same passion for individuality and technology,” said Shannan. “Our partnership with FlowPlay signifies our very first in-game fundraising effort, making this campaign a huge milestone for our technology-centric organization.”

All proceeds from the in-game items — a Rocket Science Girl in OurWorld that costs $5 in virtual currency, and a Rocket Ship Charm in Vegas World that costs 50 cents — directly benefit Girlstart programs nationwide, including the entire funding of a Girlstart summer camp, taking place in Bellevue, Wash., in 2015.

Shannan said she’s excited to return to Bellevue in 2015, following a successful camp there last summer: “Last year, 66 percent of our Bellevue participants were nonwhite, and 26 percent reported that they receive free or reduced-price lunch at school. Thanks to FlowPlay, we can continue to provide free, high-quality, hands-on STEM programming to this amazing community.”

FlowPlay chief executive officer Derrick Morton said that the linkup gives OurWorld players a chance to directly benefit a relevant cause. “Girlstart is highly active, with programs that actually make a difference for elementary and middle-school aged girls,” he said in a statement. “With this in-game donations campaign, OurWorld users have the opportunity to move the needle with an organization they can relate to, and see the tangible impact of their contributions.”