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Friday, November 6, 2015

South Jersey students target STEM gender gap


Written by Matt Flowers

Gabrielle Rochino didn't grow up with any real women engineering role models.

She did, however, have supportive family members push her toward her passion.

"I love engineering because I am able to think and work creatively and am challenged to optimize my designs to be the best they can be," Rochino said.

Once Rochino began studying engineering at Rowan University, she found women engineers to look up to and try to emulate. She began to feel more passionate about her work.

The senior mechanical engineering major is using her passion to inspire young girls to learn about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at a young age with her "Think Like a Girl: Engineering Kits."

Over the summer, Rochino proposed her own two-credit section of Engineering Clinic, a required course in the Rowan engineering program. She received funding and was given the opportunity to create a team of students to work on market research and development of her product and business.

Rochino is the team lead of the project, and has five other students working with her to develop prototypes, conduct focus groups, gain a network of advisers made up of women who are STEM/engineering leaders or in the engineering or entrepreneurship industries, and develop "Think Like a Girl: Engineering Kits."

Each kit aims to teach young girls engineering fundamentals, Rochino said.

"Because girls generally enjoy storytelling and role-playing, each activity is guided by an illustrated short-story booklet that acts like an instruction manual."

Rochino says the kits are made to instill confidence in young girls.

"The stereotype of an engineer is a nerdy guy who solves complex math and design problems. When girls have more female role models to look up to, they'll look toward engineers with more confidence."

Rochino, like other women in New Jersey, has felt the profound gender gap in STEM fields.

Women under-represented

Historically, women, along with other groups, have been under-represented in STEM employment. Research finds that women are less likely to be in a science or engineering major at the start of their college experience, and less likely to remain in these majors until graduation.

According to the 2013 United States Census report on "Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin," women’s representation in overall STEM occupations has increased since the 1970s, but they remain significantly under-represented in engineering and computer occupations — which make up more than 80 percent of all STEM employment.

The report also concludes that women’s representation in computer occupations has declined since the 1990s.

The most recent decades show less growth in STEM employment among younger women. Most of the growth in women’s share of STEM employment among those under the age of 40 occurred between 1970 and 1990.

In New Jersey, the percentage of men interested in a career in STEM outpaces the percentage of women who say they'd like a career in a STEM field.

According to New Jersey's 2015 STEM Report Card, published by The Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America, 15.7 percent of high school females graduating in 2016 surveyed said they were interested in a career in STEM, compared to 41.1 percent of 2016 male high school graduates.

Fixing the gender gap

Rowan University Provost James Newell said the goal of getting women and other under-represented groups involved in STEM-related education is to get them involved at an early age.

"We know that far too many girls lose interest in STEM areas in middle school, so if we are going to have significant impact we must reach them there," Newell said.

Rowan offers a host of initiatives to address the issue, including Attracting Women into Engineering (AWE), which brings dozens of area middle school students to Rowan for a week of activities, including making their own lip gloss, designing bridges with Jenga pieces, and designing and launching rockets from soda bottles.

The school also offers a Mathematics, Computer and Scientific Instructional Improvement Program (McSIIP), funded by the Eisenhower Higher Education Professional Development Program. McSIIP provides high-quality professional development activities for more than 5,000 elementary, middle and high school teachers to ensure they cultivate both an interest and aptitude for STEM education.

"The goal is to get as many STEM-interested students from under-represented groups engaged in a meaningful, STEM-related project so they can begin to visualize themselves in STEM careers and to counter-program the negative messaging that they are getting from retailers and too much of the media," Newell said.

Embracing opportunities

Rowan University isn't the only place where women can get a STEM-related education in South Jersey.

STEAMWorks (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) is a collaboration between the City of Bridgeton and Cumberland County College to establish a viable presence in the local community. It is a hybrid of school, laboratory and factory. Study and experimentation are meant to mix as student, hobbyist or entrepreneur pursue multiple technologies and arts.

Despite recent studies indicating that women leave STEM career paths at particularly high rates, STEAMWorks Director of Operations Merritt James Gant does not see that trend in his facility.

"None of the courses or programs offered at STEAMWorks are gender specific," Gant said.

"We have a recording studio where more than half of our clients are female. Our robotics division is comprised of all age groups, run by females, and more than half of our robotics teams are female. The mini courses we offer also serve all ages, and genders. Fabric cutting on our laser, engraving, cutting, 3-D modeling, photo editing, and web design also contain a variety of ages and genders," Gant added.

While offering new ways to get involved with STEM at a young age helps draw interest, having industry role models to look up to is important to keep women on the path to success.

Making an impact

As an assistant professor of physics at Rutgers University-Camden, Grace Brannigan doesn't spend time thinking of herself as a role model to young women STEM students.

"The truth is, that's kind of up to them," Brannigan said.

Instead, Brannigan spends her time thinking about her interactions with people (men and women alike) who are surprised to meet a woman who is a physics professor, and what she can do to make that discovery less of a surprise.

Brannigan recalls when she was introduced to a male Rutgers staff member as the new physics hire.

"His mouth literally dropped open and he did a cartoon-like double take," Brannigan said.

"Others would have been upset by the man's reaction, becoming discouraged, but personally, I appreciated getting to expand his viewpoint just by standing there."

Since taking the role of assistant professor in 2011, Brannigan has made an impact on the scientific community through innovative computational biophysics research. Recently, she was a recipient of a 2015 Cottrell College Science Award — given to only 33 early career scientists around the country — and is part of collaborative research effort funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to better understand general anesthetics.

Brannigan didn't decide to become a physics professor because she wanted to increase representation of women in STEM or be a role model. She says she did it because of a love for physics and research and has been unaffected by social cues on "acceptable" gender roles.

"When I was younger, I heard 'You don't look at all like a physics student' really often and I would literally think to myself, 'What a strange thing to say. I am a physics student, so of course I look like one.'"

Brannigan added, "I think a lot of women who have 'made it' in science are those that are less tuned in to social pressure on gender roles for whatever reason. That's kind of unfortunate, because such immunity doesn't have anything to do with being a good scientist."

'Why not me?'

Rutgers biology student Timnit Kefela works as a graduate fellow at LEAP Academy Charter School's Fabrication Laboratory in Camden.

The "Fab Lab," as it has come to be known, provides students with hands-on experience in STEM-related technologies and devices, including 3-D printers, laser cutters, and biochemistry and chemistry equipment.

The school-based makerspace responds to the critical need for diversity in STEM fields, aiming to jump-start not only the growth of LEAP students, but also the growth of a city that has been left underdeveloped.

In her role as fellow, Kefela devises, organizes and spearheads projects that stir students' curiosity and mentors them in the pursuit of science in application.

Kefela's experience as a woman in STEM has been filled with endless perseverance.

Curious about the environment she grew up in, the Camden resident became fascinated with science. However that fascination was short-lived as she perceived science and mathematics as obstacles her mind could not wrap itself around.

"It was not until my physics teacher in high school, in a class of two girls and 12 boys, told me that I would not amount to anything due to my 'inadequate' grasp of concepts," Kefela said.

Being told you would not amount to anything could be destructive for some, but not Kefela. She continued her journey, participating in research inside a Rutgers-Camden science lab.

Under the supervision of Rutgers-Camden assistant biology professor Simeon Kotchoni and with the help of senior biology major Aisha Dorley, Kefela began creation of a thriving ecosystem filled with wildflowers and pollinator insects in place of a polluted lot on Market Street in Camden.

“There’s land here that you can make beautiful,” Kefela told the Courier-Post in July.

Kefela says she likes mentoring students in the Fab Lab because it exposes them to science in an applied form, presenting an opportunity for them to determine whether they are interested in STEM or not.

"The Fab Lab presents these opportunities to these budding women without the dizzying hullabaloo of self-righteous declaration that this indeed is what you want to do."

Camden-based Campbell Soup Co. also does its part in getting children excited for STEM.

In early October, 30 Camden Academy Charter High School students got to play that role during Campbell's second annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Career Accelerator Day.

Career Accelerator Day was presented by STEMconnector — a national initiative that maps out STEM education and activities in organizations throughout the state.

The program aims to expose 10,000 high school students to engage in STEM careers through a hands-on and observational visit and interaction with professionals. Each student used his or her culinary skills to make a product, package it, and learn how to sell it to hungry consumers.

Carlos Barroso, senior vice president of global research and development, said professional and personal reasons made him want to get involved with STEM outreach.

"From a professional standpoint, we need more scientists, engineers, not only here but in the country. We want to make sure aspiring STEM engineers and scientists know that we do science here, not just making food," Barroso said.

Hitting the road

While the Fab Lab and Campbell's aims at increasing STEM interest to students in Camden, one company is taking its efforts on the road, coast to coast.

Roadtrip Nation, a company that helps people figure out what they want to do in life, is launching the STEM Roadtrip.

The STEM Roadtrip is part of AT&T's signature education initiative, AT&T Aspire, and will connect three young women to inspiring mentors this summer, as they drive cross-country in a bright green RV to ask important questions of STEM professionals. Footage from the road trip may become part of Roadtrip Nation's annual television series on public television, which will highlight the women chosen for the journey.

"Roadtrip Nation will provide not only inspiration to participants and viewers through the powerful storytelling of some of the most influential female STEM leaders in the country, but it will also provide the much-needed exposure to the diverse and distinct career options available to women in the field of STEM, with a focus on empowering under-represented communities," said spokeswoman Loureen Ayyoub.

The show is looking for women between 18 and 24 who are available for four weeks in June or July.

"A passion for STEM is not something embedded in your genome," Kefela said. "You are not born with it, you develop it."

"When you see someone like you making it, especially as a child, you think to yourself, 'Why not me?'" Kefela added.

Kefela noted that the visibility of women in STEM is growing, but she says we are not quite there yet.

"Frankly, role models are of utmost importance."

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