How One Museum Is Inspiring Young Girls to Pursue STEM
It’s been a U.S. focus over the past decade and increasingly so in the past few years to encourage young people’s interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
There’s just one problem. Despite the coordinated efforts, women and minorities are consistently left behind.
STEM-related employment and education activity continues to increase year over year, but degrees and jobs are primarily dominated by white and Asian males.
Just last year around this time, The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index revealed that not only were was the gender gap in STEM not narrowing, it was actually widening to the dismay of the many good-intentioned advocates pushing for otherwise.
“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved,” President Barack Obama said just months before the index’s release.
In the year following, advocates have been narrowing their focus to narrow the gender gap. Their goal? Figure out how to make STEM fields more attractive to women by chipping away at layers of cultural norms that do the opposite.
Such an example is the Women in Science Initiative run by the Connecticut Science Center. Since being funded by the Petit Family Foundation in 2012, the initiative has expanded on the Center's existing efforts to encourage women engagement in STEM and has had much success thus far. The Petit Family Foundation was created to promote opportunity for young women to honor the lives of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Elizabeth Petit and Michaela Rose Petit, who were the victims of senseless tragedy in 2007. The Women in Science Initiative is just one of the ways the foundation honors their memory.
Education World spoke with Amy Sailor, the Science Center's Advancement Program Manager who has been in her position since before the initiative’s inception.
She told us about the many ways the initiative has been inspiring Connecticut’s young girls in the past three years, setting an example that any organization with similar goals can learn from.
“The more creative, the more social, the more personal something can be… it makes it more effective for girls."
One of the Science Center’s most successful efforts to encourage female participation in STEM is its sponsorship of the Girls Only Hackathon.
Back for its second year this year, the initiative saw 38 girls from 25 different schools within the state compete in friendly programming competition.
The girls spent four weeks at the center throughout April learning how to develop fully functional apps for Android devices and competed in a Hackathon the month following.
Sailor says the Hackathon has been a great tool to engage the state’s girls because it is “by nature very communal and social and creative. Add to that something that strikes to heart of a young girl and they’re just all in.”
Communal is right. Sailor says the second-annual event saw an increased number of homeschooled students this year.
”We have an increased number of homeschoolers this year, so again, it’s a great opportunity or girls who might not ordinarily come into contact with each other” yet they are able to “work on something substantive and compete.”
After its second consecutive successful year, the Girls Only Hackathon will take place for its third year in April 2017.
”How do we close that leaky pipe?”
Another important tool that the Women In Science Initiative uses to recruit young girls is providing them access to mentors in the field.
Through the Women in Science Adult Lecture Series, young girls are provided a quarterly opportunity to meet incredible women established in STEM professions.
Women in Science Adult Lecture Series happens quarterly and features female STEM professionals who oftentimes bring mentees with them. According to Sailor, the series is a unique opportunity for young women to meet outstanding professionals in the field.
Sailor described a high caliber of women who have presented at the series in the past- including the first black woman to receive a Ph.D in Astrophysics; Jedidah Isler received her Ph.D in Astrophysics from Yale in 2014. Sailor said Isler, who is also a TED Fellow, provided Connecticut girls with a rare opportunity to meet a young, massively successful professional in a STEM field.
Sailor also mentioned one of the initiative’s first speakers, another impressive individual who talked about how to stop the trend of women leaving STEM fields in a five-year time span, a phenomenon often referred to as the leaky pipeline.
Katherine Kennedy Townsend, oldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, taught women “how to maintain their power once they enter a position of power” and set a high standard for the caliber of speakers the initiative invited to its lecture series thereafter.
Not all people in science are “white guys who wear white lab coats”
On the third Saturday of every month with the exception of in January and September, the Connecticut Science Center hosts a female scientist who can range from being a seasoned professional to a graduate or even undergraduate student.
She positions herself on one of the bridges in the center and for several hours intersects with the general flow of traffic to talk with visitors about her endeavors in the field.
Sailor says Women in Science Saturdays is one of the ways the initiative works to break-down the gender biases that prevail in STEM.
”Our general visitors get to see female scientist. It’s our way of addressing on a regular basis that not all people who practice science are serious or crazy-looking..or that they’re all white guys who wear white lab coats.”
Sailor mentioned a study from 2011 commissioned by Microsoft that found 40 percent of females became interested in STEM before college thanks to visiting museums; it's clear that the Connecticut Science Center takes this responsibility very seriously.
”My daughter was transformed”
When we asked Sailor about her most memorable moments from working with young girls in STEM, she didn’t have to think that far back to come up with an example.
Just last week, Sailor received feedback from a parent whose daughter attended last month’s Hackathon.
”She used the phrase ‘my child was transformed,” Sailor said.
“That was the best response I could have received because transformational is what museums have the power to do.”
To read more about the Connecticut Science Center's Women In Science Initiative, see here.
Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor