By Times of Trenton Editorial Board
At a Princeton University chemistry lab last week, important personal discoveries were occurring by the dozens.
More than 400 girls from seventh to 10th grades were crowded around experiments at Frick Chemistry Lab for the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM for short. The goal was to pique curiosity and plant seeds of knowledge among students to close a wide gender gap in STEM occupations.
“Days like this are incredibly important to spark that interest, maintain that interest and show them this path that they can follow if they so choose,” says Shannon Greco, science education program leader at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which hosted the conference.
Women make up nearly half of the workforce, but U.S. Census figures show that women occupy 26 percent of STEM jobs. While that percentage has been increasing in recent decades, the growth has slowed since the 1990s, in part because of the declining percentage of women in computer occupations, according the census.
The young women’s conference at Princeton started in 2001 with about 200 students from 26 schools. This year’s event drew students from 46 schools in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Greco told Times of Trenton reporter Cristina Rojas that reaching students in grades 7 to 10 is the critical stage for encouraging careers in STEM.
“Middle school is when your interest in science gets sparked or crushed, which happens more for girls than boys,” Greco says. “But if we catch them now and show them that science is fun, interesting and beneficial to the world, they can maybe see themselves as scientists.”
There’s evidence of strong progress in some segments. In the 2011 census figures, women made up 47 percent of mathematical workers (up from 15 percent in 1970), and 41 percent of life and physical scientists (up from 14 percent in 1970). The biggest gap remains in engineering, which had women with 13 percent of the jobs in 2011 (up from 3 percent in 1970).
The cost of failing to nurture an interest for STEM careers in young women can be great. Women who work in STEM field earn 33 percent more than counterparts, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Efforts like the Princeton conference to close the STEM gender gap are well worth the investment.
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