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Local, national efforts aim to draw girls into STEM fields

Women are a workforce minority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions, four fields that the U.S. Department of Commerce expects to grow at twice the rate of other professions by 2018.    Washington is among a handful of states expected to have the fastest job growth in so-called STEM professions, and the need to address gender disparity is becoming even more critical.

“There’s going to be a demand for these fields, and if you exclude women, you are excluding a big part of the workforce,” said Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista Corp. “It’s pretty clear that a lot of women want a career, and if they are not part of these occupations, you are leaving a lot of human capital on the table.”

Efforts underway nationally, and in Spokane, aim to draw girls into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Men dominate the sciences and make up more than 55 percent of mathematicians and statisticians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Engineering and computer sciences have the lowest percentage of women at 14 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

A 2010 study by the American Association of University Women concluded that there are three reasons for the inequality between men and women in the sciences: social and environmental factors; the college environment; and the continuing importance of bias, often at an unconscious level.

The association’s study also found that “many girls have already formed opinions about which occupations are appropriate for their sex by their teenage years, and then later decide to avoid male-dominated fields. Strong STEM education programs can help end the gender imbalance.”

Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho is trying to expose girls to STEM as young as kindergarten. Girl Scout leaders teach STEM-related lessons through activities like making cookies, reducing trash or stargazing on overnight campouts.

Spokane Public Schools hosted a summer STEM camp for girls and boys entering grades five through eight that taught subjects like robotics, computer programming, forensic science, and 3-D design and printing. High school and college women were hired to teach the subjects, which itself was a potential learning moment for the kids who attended, said Lisa White, the district’s director of expanded learning.

“It’s a cultural, worldwide problem, but we are trying to get at it,” White said.

Gonzaga University professor Joanne Smieja is leading a national effort to advance women who are teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the college level. The five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation involves 70 women from 27 institutions.

The project is in its third year, and already the networking among women faculty has led to the advancement of women in their positions at colleges and universities, Smieja said. They’re in turn serving as role models for female students.

“There’s lots of data out there that says a woman’s confidence is hugely affected by who is in front of the classroom,” she said.

‘Talk up the activity, not the science’

Washington State University graduate Molly Wakeling thinks participating in Girl Scouts helped boost her confidence in entering the male-dominated field of physics and the U.S. Air Force.

“I think it gave me the courage to not be afraid to explore,” said Wakeling, who became a Brownie in second grade.

She just graduated from WSU with a Bachelor of Science in physics and enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Her first mission is to begin work on her master’s degree in nuclear engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology.

Girl Scouts fueled Wakeling’s passion for science through activities to earn merit badges and outdoor camps, she said. Being in Scouting also gave the former Spokane resident leadership opportunities, such as being a camp counselor.

When she graduated from high school, she had little doubt about her area of study.

“I knew there would be a hole in my heart where the science should be if I didn’t pursue science,” Wakeling said. “I went with physics because of my love of astronomy. I feel privileged to know how the world works and it really captures my fascination and imagination.”

Pam Lund, chapter director for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and North Idaho, said it’s important the organization takes the lead in introducing members to complex skills.

The local Girl Scouts chapter has 6,000 members in 30 counties, ranging in age from 5 to 17.

The organization, Lund said, uses an approach that starts with leadership and is accomplished in three ways:

• Girl-led STEM activities in a supportive environment where boys are not given the chance to take over; learning by doing; and collaborative projects.

• Teens participate in a four-part series called Imagine Your STEM Future, which allows them to explore 20 careers through a variety of activities. Those might include building a switch, extracting DNA from a banana, imagining what a “couldn’t-live-without” item like a cellphone could be like in 10 years, or designing and implementing a plan to clean up an oil spill.

• Mentors in scientific fields talk to the Scouts.

During a recent day at summer camp, some of the youngest Girl Scouts – Brownies who are second- and third-graders – gathered around a table to mix baking soda and citric acid. They learned as water is added, the powders fizz.

“I like mixing stuff together,” said Mackenzie Baker, 8. “I like to see what will happen.”

Leaders find ways to incorporate STEM into an activity at least twice a week, such as cosmetic chemistry, building and launching bottle rockets and Alka Seltzer rockets, and engineering bubbles.

The trick is to talk up the activity, not the science, said Julie Gardner, a Girl Scout marketing and media manager. If leaders say, “Let’s do science,” the girls aren’t as interested as when they are told they are taking part in a fun activity, with the science explained along the way, she said.

Princeton study proved gender bias

Princeton University researchers conducted a double-blind study in 2012 to look for gender bias among science faculty at research-intensive colleges and universities. They sent two identical resumes to faculty members in numerous schools with randomly assigned male and female names under the premise of filling a laboratory manager position.

Participants not only rated the men as “significantly” more competent and hirable than the females, they also offered the man a higher starting salary, the study found.

Despite national efforts to encourage women to seek STEM degrees and enter those fields, “that change in the human psyche is going to take time,” said Smieja, the GU chemistry and biochemistry professor who is leading a national project to help advance women STEM instructors in college.

Smieja’s work has led to a network of female instructors at colleges and universities across the country, including Butler University, Loyola University, Western Oregon University, Southern Oregon University, Northeastern Illinois University and Providence College.

“Many had small departments and commonly only one woman, which could make it additionally challenging for these women to advance in their careers because they feel isolated,” she said.

The alliances offer support and mentoring. There are 15 mentors in chemistry, biology, engineering, computer science and physics instruction.

Last year, the project’s efforts resulted in 17 instructors receiving promotions to tenure, full-time or leadership positions.

“What we’ve discovered is there are a number of challenges women have to face in their midcareer; they struggle a bit to focus with a lot that pulls on their attention or important university work that’s not appreciated by the promotion committees,” Smieja said.

Once these women are placed in larger roles at their respective colleges and universities, they have a better opportunity to influence female students.

“Men and women going into a calculus class with similar ability, the women’s confidence goes down when there’s a man (teaching the class),” Smieja said. “If a woman is doing something another woman wants to do, then you think you can do it too.”

Women seem to face particularly tough criticism in computer science and engineering because women are so scarce in those fields, data shows.

Sarah Prata, 20, is one of three women in her graduating class majoring in computer science at Gonzaga.

“I wanted to get into this field, but I was told I couldn’t do it” by some of her high school and college instructors, Prata said.

The male teacher in her first computer science class used to giggle nervously, she said; Prata believes it’s because he wasn’t used to having women students. He’d also regularly question answers on her homework in front of the class.

“Anytime I go to a new environment there’s judgment and skepticism until they realize I’m competent,” Prata said. “It’s not intentional, it’s cultural.”

Forsyth, the Avista economist, thinks time will help change such views.

“As the baby boomers leave, and you see more women, the new generation of workers are going to be much more comfortable working in that mixed-gender environment.”

‘Hey, I got this’

Spokane Public Schools is encouraging girls in STEM on a smaller scale with initiatives like all-girl robotics teams, the summer STEM camps and encouraging girls to take more science classes.

“When people hear STEM, they think boys,” said White, the STEM camp organizer. “We told parents to send the girls, too.”

White is no stranger to introducing girls to male-dominated fields. She helped launch the annual Pizza, Pop and Power Tools project to introduce girls to construction jobs.

“The key to all of this is the nice balance,” White said. It’s ideal to have both genders working together, as students and as instructors, she said.

“If you never see someone looking like you (who’s) doing it, you don’t necessarily think you can do it. To get at this, we have to have adults who can be what those children aspire to be.”

To get started, the district put together a girls and a boys Lego robotics team.

Although the boys tend to “dive in,” while the girls hang back, Eric Hauck, a STEM camp teacher, said he finds the girls are more patient. Boys get frustrated because they can’t figure things out right away, he said.

Prata, Hayley Gower, Morgan Herrington and Jacki Craipo all worked at the STEM camp. Prata taught Java programming, Gower and Herrington helped teach 3-D printing and Lego robotics, and Craipo helped teach underwater robotics.

“It took until high school to realize: Hey, science is my thing,” said Herrington, 17. She’s been taking science classes in North Central High School’s Institute of Science and Technology since her freshman year.

Craipo, a Rogers High School student, shied away from science at first; now she’s a champion.

“I saw science as really, really nerdy, and I didn’t want to be looped into that. I didn’t avoid it because it’s hard, the whole aura around it,” Craipo said. But now she wants to encourage girls to “just try it.”

The goal is to get these young girls in the pipeline and keep them going, White said. “They’ll see harder math, they’ll see harder science, and they’ll say: ‘Hey, I got this.’ ”



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