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Educators work to steer more females to STEM careers

An absence of role models is among the reasons cited for the low numbers of women in STEM careers.

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A scene from “Hidden Figures,” the Oscar-nominated 2016 film that highlighted the little-known role of African-American women mathematicians in the early NASA space program . Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

When it comes to gender disparity in the professions within the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the numbers are telling. According to the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Foundation, women account for 33.8 percent of the nation’s environmental engineers, 35.2 percent of chemists, 22.7 percent of chemical engineers, 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers and 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers.

There is an uneven distribution of women across STEM segments, according to the report. Women make up 62 percent of the social sciences employment base and 48 percent of the biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences, but they account for only 25 percent of the employment base in the computer and mathematical sciences field and 15 percent of the engineering workforce. The numbers are even lower for women of color, who account for fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

What can be done to bring more women into STEM careers? For Katie Magboo, manager of talent and workforce programs at the Connecticut Technology Council, it is a question that has been asked for too many years. 

“Unfortunately, we’re still having this same conversation,” she said. “All of the companies we talk to would like to have more women. But they can’t have what is not available.”

In some ways, Magboo noted, the lack of attention given to prominent women in STEM achievement has discouraged women from considering these professions. She pointed to her organization’s annual Women in Innovation Awards honoring Connecticut’s female STEM leaders as an effort to raise awareness within the state. And she saluted the 2016 Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” about the role of African-American female mathematicians in developing NASA’s space program, as a much-needed showcase honoring women STEM heroes.

“I am a believer that you can only dream of achieving when you see others achieving that dream,” Magboo said. “If you do not see women in engineering, then there will be a good chance that it will not be your dream. It is all about finding and telling stories.”

Across Fairfield County, colleges and universities are striving to bring more young women into STEM-related studies. Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) seeks to introduce seventh-grade students in Danbury public schools to STEM via “Finding Our Way: An Experiential Watershed Learning Program for Middle School Children and Their Families.” Funded with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the program provides a year of environmentally oriented STEM study focused on the New England watershed.

Theodora Pinou, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences and faculty curator of the H. G. Dowling Herpetological Collection at WCSU, has noticed differences in perspectives among the boys and girls in the program. “Girls take a much more special interest in personally relevant projects,” she said. “For example, if water is important to them, they are more concerned about the quality of the water. Boys are really hands-on — they like going to a dam and seeing water coming down hard and splashing.”

Pinou said the program places boys and girls on teams with the goal of encouraging an exchange of opinions and observations on the subjects being studied. “They need to work on a team and need to be able to talk to each other,” she said. “They may not think the same way, but talking to each other really adds value and allows different perspectives.”

When students move beyond middle school and into high school, many begin to consider potential career paths. Yet Magboo wondered if the lagging interest in STEM careers could be because students lack a clear understanding of the work and duties involved in these disciplines.

“There is a misconception that STEM professionals work in a lab or behind a computer and not in a collaborative environment,” she said. “Data shows women are drawn to collaborative careers and helping people. But that is the crux of what engineering is: You’re solving a problem that helps people.”

Jani Macari Pallis, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Bridgeport, agreed. “If you say to someone, ‘What does a scientist do or an engineer do?’ it is not as obvious as what a nurse or a teacher does,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns there. People still think that engineering is the same as mechanics and maybe they do not understand what engineers do.”

Pallis said students are not impeded in pursuing STEM careers by the technology they require. “This generation is loaded up with computer tools and apps — they are so much more comfortable with technology,” she said. Yet she questioned whether high school students, particularly females, have been properly prepared for the mathematical aspects of STEM work. “Math is our language — it predicts the future for us,” she said.

Robin Avant, assistant professor of biology and molecular biology at Housatonic Community College, said STEM studies would benefit from the inclusion of art classes. Avant said the Bridgeport college is part of a growing movement advocating STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — rather than STEM.

“Look at engineering and architecture — all blueprints and models that are used in these careers are made from art,” Avant said. She said the logical thought process of scientific studies benefit from the innovations of artistic creativity and vice-versa. “Instead of leaving art out, an ideal individual student would be well-grounded and well-rounded in all disciplines,” she said. “They would see there are connections and that they are not separate disciplines.”

Avant, also the college’s STEAM coordinator, is putting together a four-day STEAM event at the school that will include representatives from Connecticut-based companies, including Sikorsky, Solar City and Electric Boat.

In Fairfield, Sacred Heart University is using a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant to expand its STEM education curriculum for future teachers. Bonnie Maur, STEM director at the university’s Isabelle Farrington College of Education, said she is hopeful that more young women will consider careers in STEM education and inspire future generations of young women to pursue STEM careers.

“That’s the key,” Maur said. “A good role model builds confidence and helps students learn, grow and challenge themselves. It is critical to grow out a pool of strong women in STEM fields, as well as STEM education.”

Maur can attest to the success of that strategy in her own life. “I had a woman teacher in seventh and ninth grade who turned me on to this,” she said. “That’s when the excitement grows.”

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