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Friday, March 13, 2015

Start early to have girls consider STEM careers

Written by Mariandl M.C. Hufford

The United States is in dire need of more workers for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as well-paying jobs in those areas are growing at a faster rate than in other fields. And as STEM opportunities grow, we should ensure that women and minorities are fairly represented.

Data provided by the National Science Foundation paint a stark picture of how few women and other underrepresented groups enter and persist in STEM careers. A recent report by researchers at the University of California, Columbia, and Emory details the pervasive bias women (and especially women of color) encounter in STEM workplaces.

While, based on these studies, the forecast for women in STEM careers may appear gloomy, there are many of us who are committed to upending the status quo and combining our resources to address this pernicious problem. A conference scheduled for March 19 and 20 at the Agnes Irwin School will examine some proven ways to improve the engagement and retention of girls and women in STEM.

One aspect that will be examined is curriculum design and the preparation of teachers at all levels of the educational pipeline. We know that teachers are the number-one factor in encouraging the persistence of girls in STEM subjects. Yes, teacher bias can have a negative impact on a girl's belief in herself as a scientist or mathematician, but that same powerful influence can be used to ensure that girls remain curious about science and math.

Girls often respond positively to the idea that they can contribute to the greater good with their actions; making sure they understand how STEM subjects improve the world can help persuade them to persist in these fields. Therefore, we must educate our teachers in effective curriculum design, but also help them understand how their own biases might affect students.

Another way to increase the number of girls and women in STEM fields is by exposing them to role models and mentors. The expression "You can't be what you can't see" perfectly captures the concept. Girls and women need exposure to female scientists, mathematicians, technology workers, and engineers who can help them envision themselves in these careers and show them how to access opportunities for advancement.

Those pathways to success start in the elementary years, with bulletin boards that highlight the accomplishments of women in science. From there, a combination of curriculum, teachers, and mentors can support and help guide young girls and women as they embark on their careers.

I recently heard a STEM expert say that we know what we have to do; we just have to figure out a way to do it. He might be right. Indeed, a lot has been written about this. For example, the American Association of University Women is scheduled to publish a report on March 26 on how to increase the number of women in engineering and technology.

And yes, a lot has been done that has been successful. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one example of a program that has made a real difference in increasing the participation of women and minorities in STEM fields.

However, as the STEM expert explained, we have not consistently marshaled our resources. We have not, across the silos of our industries, effectively and consistently combined our collective wisdom and shared our solutions. We, together, can be greater than the sum of our parts.

We must commit to truly becoming the transformative force that girls and women need to gain the equality we seek and from which our entire society will benefit.

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