Girl Scout Nikhita Penugonda was a little girl in India when she first found inspiration in the sky.
“My dad and I used to go to the roof of our apartment and just look at the night sky and that got me really interested in both aerospace and aviation," she said.
For Penugonda, now a sophomore at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington, that interest only grew. While classes at school were well-rounded, none really touched on her desire to learn more about aerospace. That’s where Girl Scouts of Western Washington (GSWW) came in.
"Girl Scouts and aviation kind of go hand in hand,” said Kari Seybolt-Murphy with Girl Scouts of Western Washington. “Girl Scouts was founded in 1912, and one of the first badges that was added from the original seven was an aviation badge in 1916.”
It turns out that Boeing, GSWW and The Museum of Flight share a goal to get more young women, like Penugonda, interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). That’s why Boeing decided to help nurture GSWW aviation programming through $195,000 in grants in 2020 and 2021. With those funds — and a partnership with the Museum of Flight — GSWW was able to re-imagine their aviation programming series.
“The Boeing funding came through just as the COVID pandemic was hitting,” Seybolt-Murphy said. “So what we were able to do was to create really robust and enticing programming that our Girl Scouts could do virtually. And because of the funding we got from Boeing, we were able to keep the cost of our programming extremely low.”
The programs are designed to offer everything a Girl Scout needs to complete a set of badge requirements and include activities and materials to help scouts learn about aviation. Some Scouts are also offered “discovery flights,” where they go up in an airplane with a certified flight instructor.
Boeing employees offer their expertise, too. Recently, Elizabeth Balga with Boeing’s Starliner space program presented to the Girl Scouts in an event focusing on women working on space programs.
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of women involved in STEM careers — especially not in aerospace,” Balga said. “So I am thrilled to be a role model for the Girl Scouts and show that it’s possible to forge an exciting and successful career like I’ve done with Boeing and the Starliner program.”
Penugonda watched from home as Balga talked about her Boeing career. Not only was Penugonda learning about a space program, she also says it was inspiring to hear a woman talk about working in a field in which women have long been a minority.
“These programs have inspired me with these amazing female leaders who are telling me it’s possible and sharing all these wonderful stories,” Penugonda said.
GSWW says their aviation and space programming has been wildly popular. And since most events are virtual, they’ve been able to draw in hundreds of girls not only from all over Western Washington but also across the U.S.
“We now have a pipeline of young members who are really getting excited about aviation. And their eyes have been opened to all the possibilities,” Seybolt-Murphy said.
Penugonda is excited about her future possibilities. She says she’d like to become an astrophysicist because, “I really enjoy anything space-related, and I want to study phenomena like black holes, supernovas and stuff like that.”
She knows she can get there. And she wants other girls like her to know they can get there too.
“To join a program where it’s all girls who are all interested in aviation and aerospace is really nice exposure for me,” Penugonda said. “I’d like people to know that it’s a huge field out there, and if you’re interested there is probably a job or career that caters to you and what you enjoy.”
By Jane McCarthy