The "three amigas" got lucky.

While observers decry a culture that discourages young girls from pursuing the "hard sciences," the three Henry Sibley High School students found a middle school teacher who inspired and encouraged them to get into science and math.

"Science was not my favorite class at all, and now I can see myself being a marine biologist," said Christina Zaine, who along with Kaelyn Johnson and Emi Almanza Lopez became so enamored with science that they caught the attention of producers at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT).

The station, which produces the nationally aired "SciGirls" show courtesy of a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, for the past few years has been on something of a crusade to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes and careers. The girls wound up being featured in an episode, that will air Saturday on PBS stations nationwide.

"There's a real serious need to make science more attractive to girls," said Richard Hudson, the director of science production at TPT, who has helped produce other PBS kids' science shows such as "Newton's Apple" in the 1980s and '90s and "DragonflyTV" last decade.

The three friends, freshmen at the Mendota Heights school, were cast last school year to star in the Emmy-winning program, which has drawn rave reviews for its efforts to interest girls in science and break decades-old stereotypes that STEM careers are for boys.

"This is but one small effort we are making," Hudson said. "We reach millions of girls. They improve their self-confidence because they see girls like them doing [science]."

"After doing the show, my interest in science has grown," Zaine said. "I know younger girls will be watching and they should be excited about it."

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that while the number of STEM jobs is expected to grow faster than other parts of the economy in the next 10 years, the jobs are mainly being filled by males. And a joint congressional study earlier this year found that while the number of women getting undergraduate degrees was increasing, those getting math and computer science degrees was decreasing.

The girls, who were at Heritage E-STEM magnet school in West St. Paul last year, are among the hundreds in the Twin Cities and around the country that the show's creators have drawn upon to get the message across that girls can engage in science as easily as boys and that they can be just as successful.

"It's the way it is presented," Johnson said, who also now wants to go into marine biology. "This is the same about everything. No offense to science, but when it was first introduced to me [in elementary school] it was boring."

Numbers don't add up

But figuring out how to get more girls interested STEM classes and careers has been as easy as understanding the Brouwer fixed-point theorem. (It's used to calculate multidimensional spaces.)

The root causes, according to many teachers, researchers and others, include a lack of role models, peer pressure and continuing gender discrimination.

"There is this bias, unintentional, that boys are pushed in that direction and girls, not so much," said Karen Purcell, an author and the owner of a engineering firm who writes and lectures on the gender gap. "There aren't a lot of us."

Girls often are not told about STEM careers by parents, teachers or counselors, experts say.

"Young girls cannot possibly consider opportunities they do not know exist," Purcell wrote recently in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece focusing on the STEM gender gap. "If girls are not exposed to certain subject and career paths, they are highly unlikely to elect to follow them in college."

Model behavior

Outreach and the presentation of role models, Purcell believes, are the most effective ways to make girls more aware of STEM.

"Girls just need to be encouraged," she said. "If they are given the exposure, they will definitely see what they can do."

She points to what is happening at Iowa colleges and universities in recent years: This year more than 11,300 women enrolled in STEM majors at the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa, up 13 percent from 2009. University officials credit the increase to outreach programs.

"Many studies have shown that exposing girls to [STEM] at an early age and in the right way is critical to maintaining their interest in these subjects as they grow older," said Nancy Allen-Mastro, the superintendent of the West St. Paul school district.

But peer pressure -- especially in junior high and high school -- also plays a huge part in whether girls take the leap into STEM or follow other pursuits.

The "three amigas" said they have come across situations where being smart was not considered cool or peers looked askance if someone expressed a desire to spend time exploring science instead of exploring the nearest mall.

"Sometimes it's not cool to be smart for girls," said Almanza Lopez, who also wants to go into the marine biology field and hopes the show will inspire other girls. "I think this TV thing is really cool. I hope it rubs off on them."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281