This month, with school in full swing, VINS School Programs at the Center for Environmental Education is starting to think about how to make sure all students benefit from our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs. It has been shown time and time again that women and girls are slowly discouraged from pursuing STEM careers as their academic and professional development takes shape. So today we’re talking about how to encourage girls and their STEM interests.
First let’s look at some statistics. This is a publication by the National Girls Collaborative Project. The NGCP supports programs that engage girls in underrepresented careers fields. In particular, they focus on bringing together groups that inform and encourage girls to pursue STEM.
So I decided to ask them.
I was lucky enough to grow up next door to one particularly interesting engineer. Terry Aldrich was an engineer in a time that very few women were. In fact, she was the only woman in her class to graduate from the Cornell College of Engineering 60 years ago. Terry told me stories of being the only woman in the college, having to share a cubical with the lab’s refreshments and being expected to take care of all her colleagues’ messes. Though there were very few women to look up to or seek advice from during her time, the stories of the first women to break the glass ceiling at Cornell kept her eye on the prize.
Pursuing a STEM degree at a very different time, the women in Clarkson University’s engineering programs exhibit the same tenacity as Terry and attribute their success to similar role models and mentors. Let’s meet a few of them:
Allie Day is a senior Electrical Engineering major, Air Force ROTC and varsity Cross Country athlete. Allie describes her senior year physics class in high school as particularly formative, “I really liked biology and wanted to become a doctor, but in senior year physics we did a unit with electrical circuits and wiring. That really jumped me!” When it comes to her experience in various STEM settings she says “In the engineering field, I have very few girls in my classes. However, being in the Air Force ROTC has acclimated me to a male-dominated world and I don't find it intimidating anymore. I was one of 2 female interns at my job this summer. We were both respected and people were happy to have young females out working in STEM areas.” When I asked what she would tell girls who are interested in similar studies she said “Go for it! You will probably end up surprising yourself with what you can learn and do.”
I think Allie’s perspective is important because she has been persistent in male dominated fields. In the Air Force and electrical engineering, she is regularly surprising herself. Allie reminds me that in order to become good at something you have to start out not knowing if you’re going to succeed. As educators we should be encouraging girls to persevere in topics that interest them even if they don’t initially succeed.
Erin Ryan is an environmental engineer major who plans to start a career in consulting upon her graduation in May. She said her interest in engineering grew out of a less technical passion. “When I was in middle school I would always say that I wanted to save the polar bears from melting ice caps. I excelled in math and science and someone pointed out that environmental engineering may be a good fit for me.” Erin’s most formative experience involved a STEM summer camp for girls. She worked on biology projects, built robots and forensics. She suggests that young girls should get involved in hands on projects and learn how things work. “These are useful life skills and will also be helpful experiences in the classroom. Go outside, explore, and get dirty!”
Erin’s story has a few important moments. First, she was sure of something she loved, the environment. Second, her teachers and parents recognized her ability and suggested she investigate something that combined her passion and talents. Many times girls simply aren’t aware of the academic and career options they have. Last, Erin had a very positive experience at her STEM camp which solidified her goals. As educators we are able to facilitate similar experiences both in and out of the classroom. Making sure girls have project based learning opportunities is key for developing confidence in STEM.
Aileen Daley is a senior environmental health science and engineering student. She has just accepted a job at GE Power & Water in the Operations Management Leadership Program, which will begin following her May graduation. Aileen talks about important role models in her youth. A high school math teacher made it a point to integrate life lessons into his calculus class. “He had a big poster that had different career paths open to people with a math education- everything from teacher to digital design artist to engineer. Math could take me anywhere I wanted to go.” She also looks up to historical figures like Alice Hamilton. “She pioneered the field of industrial hygiene. She was the first woman on Harvard University’s faculty and brought awareness to lead poisoning, saving thousands of lives.”
In professional experiences, the bag is mixed. Both Erin and Samantha Kapra, an Environmental Engineering student, noted some prejudice in their work places. Describing the way she was passed over by clients despite her support from supervisors and colleagues, Erin says "I would say that professional people in STEM fields don't typically discriminate based on sex, but the general public perception still does." Samantha sees a generational discrepancy, " While working internships, people of my parents' generation in the construction and waste-water industries treated me differently from some of my male counterparts. I don't think that people in my own generation are concerned about female engineers."
Aileen had a very different experience. She wrote, "At my internship this past summer there were 4 other male interns. I didn't have to deal with any sexist comments or people thinking I wasn't as smart as the male interns. The manager of my plant was a woman, the EHS manager was a woman, the materials manager was a woman and the risk leader, a recent college grad, was also a woman."
Similarly Ellen Durand, who holds a PhD in Biological Sciences from Harvard and currently works as a consultant or scientific adviser, said, "At an undergraduate internship, I met a woman who ultimately recruited me to the job I have now. She actually touched base with me throughout my grad school career to find out when I was finishing up and looking for a job. She wanted to work with me again." Both Aileen and Ellen's experiences illustrate the importance of role models, networking and making connections. Ellen calls this the most important thing you can do throughout your career.
Ellen also suggests that though STEM careers often seem prescriptive and straight forward, it is okay for young people to "not know exactly what you want to do, or change your mind frequently. At the same time, it's also okay to know what you DON'T want to do. The job I have now, is never something I thought I would do, but mostly because I didn't even know it was an option. For people mentoring students, at any point in their education, I would recommend that we not treat STEM careers as a linear path."
So how do we implement the lessons from these success stories in our classrooms? Looking at the suggestions from these young women I'd recommend a few important steps:
1. Make sure girls are aware of the opportunities that STEM offers. Talk about career choices that use science and math.
2. Use hands-on project based learning to turn science concepts into engaging activities that offer opportunities for girls to experiment and build confidence.
3. Ensure that you are creating an environment that welcomes girls in STEM subjects. Decorate with posters of women engaging in STEM pursuits, talk about women who pioneered important scientific and mathematical discoveries and use girls as demonstrators for science principles.
How do you support girls in STEM? Share your ideas and suggestions below!