The Changing Face of STEM
In 2011, I was invited, along with other K-12 STEM educators, to a symposium of the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WSAS). From the mountains of data presented, two bits of information stuck with me:
- in the coming years, 80% of all new US jobs would be in computer science and engineering fields;
- although women comprise 47% of the total workforce, women are seriously underrepresented in these two STEM fields even though more woman are achieving STEM degrees overall.
Wait a minute- how could this be happening?
Since 2009, I’ve supported my 8th grade students at state and national STEM competitions with enormous degrees of success. The interesting thing is this: out of the hundreds of students I’ve taken to competition over the years, the vast majority are young women, and all (yes, all) of my national competitors are young women. Their projects equally represent both science investigations and engineering design projects and inventions. This pattern is not exclusive to my classroom. In our local school district, there are 14 young scientists slated to compete at the national FFA competition later this month- and the entire team of 9th-12th graders are women. So where is the disconnect? Why are we losing so many young women from the STEM pipeline when they clearly have the aptitude to learn math and science (and compete with aplomb) in the early teen years?
In the United States, we have been unable thus far to plug the hole in the pipeline that leaks out some of our most talented and gifted young scientists before they can make their own contributions in the workforce. I’ve read several articles on this topic, and there seems to be a consensus that lack of mentorship, financial hardship and family obligations are issues that more often interrupt the careers of women over their male counterparts.
Could the problem be deeper and at a less obvious level? Namely, could the barrier be the societal influences that help shape our attitudes? Is it possible that the opinions and choices of young girls are affected early on by the subtle whisperings of appropriateness? On this note, a recent (2016) study by the National Science Foundation revealed that girls as young as 2nd grade expressed strong, negative opinions about math regardless of their tested ability. Would those survey results begin to change if young girls played with NASA Barbie? What would have happened in “The Martian” if the lead had been played by Sandra Bullock rather than Matt Damon? Would we, as a society, have believed that a woman scientist was capable of surviving against all odds by growing potatoes in her own poop? Would this fit our societal image of what a scientist is?
Throughout my career, I’ve been met with a repeated and resounding comment: “You don’t look like a scientist.” Hmmm. What does a scientist look like? Maybe more importantly, does it matter? I remember excitedly calling up my university mentor 13 years ago to tell her that I had a job interview for a coveted science teaching position. I asked her if she had any advice for me before I headed into the interview the next morning. She said, “Michele-wear your glasses tomorrow. They make you look smarter.” I took her advice, and I got the job. Would it have made any difference if I had not? I cannot answer that question, but I can make sure that the young women who come to me in the future for guidance don’t end up with similar advice.
Let’s plug the hole in the STEM pipeline, if need be, one woman at a time.