Our nation faces a void in STEM talent, and women must be prepared to take the lead
From The Tennessean Opinion article published October 29, 2019
By Dr. Barbara Bell, director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls at The Harpeth Hall School in Nashville.
The state of Tennessee has been working to build interest and excitement in students around STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) disciplines for more than 30 years. The 3rd annual Tennessee STEAM Festival, sponsored by the Discovery Center in Murfreesboro, occurred earlier in October and served as a reminder, more broadly, about the need for more girls and women to become interested and participate in STEAM or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - the acronyms are used interchangeably).
The National Science Board tells us we are a nation at risk if we do not develop more STEM talent in our country. Where are we going to find that talent? The answer is among women. Teachers, professors and administrators have been discussing the need for more girls and women to be inspired to pursue STEM for far too long. The time to act to engage girls in STEM subjects and STEM careers is now, especially in engineering and computer science.
Statistics say that women receive more undergraduate degrees than men, but not in STEM. Looking at undergraduate degrees alone, 60% of the degrees in biology and biomedical sciences and 45% of the degrees in mathematics are awarded to women; however, less than 20% of the degrees in engineering, and less than 20% of the degrees in computer science (and information science and support services) are awarded to women.
When we look at women of color, the numbers are even smaller. Asian women earn 5% of all STEM undergraduate degrees, while black women earn 2.9% and Latinas earn 3.8% of all STEM undergraduate degrees. We've got some work to do in education to inspire more women to pursue STEM degrees.
Start with girls
The good news is that we have begun this work and we've started with girls.
Harpeth Hall's Center for STEM Education for Girls and STEM Consortium are working to solve this challenge, one girl at a time. The Center was founded nearly eight years ago at Harpeth Hall School. Dr. Stacy Klein-Gardner was the first Director, and I now have the privilege to run it.
Our vision is a world without a gender gap in STEM. Along with the other STEM Consortium schools, the Center's mission is to equip schools to graduate the next generation of female STEM thinkers and doers by providing leadership, expertise, advocacy and innovation in STEM education for girls.
One excellent example of the difference we are making is through our STEM Summer Institute, or SSI. We recruit girls from all over greater Nashville (19 schools total), including some of our most underserved areas, and bring the best and brightest girls to campus for our research-based STEM summer program. We offer scholarships and free transportation to eliminate the barriers some students might have in getting to SSI.
For high schoolers, we offer a two-week program and for middle schoolers, we offer two, one-week programs. Once on campus, we give girls a real-world problem to solve, teach them the engineering design process, provide needed materials and support, and then, working in teams, they design solutions.
This year we served 32-33 girls per week. And the really good news is, 48% were girls of color.
An education that makes a difference
For STEM Summer Institute 2019, we partnered with the Lwala Community Alliance to attempt to solve some of the challenges facing the community of Lwala, Kenya. In our two-week high school camp, girls were asked to create "safe stoves" for women in Kenya to use during the rainy season, when cooking fires must be brought inside.
Using a mix of concrete, wire, clay, and galvanized aluminum among other building materials, the girls worked in teams to build prototype ovens including "gasifiers," "brick ovens," and "fire bowls." They tested their prototypes, made changes in composition and scale, then demonstrated their final projects to a panel of judges, all STEM professionals from across the Nashville community.
During our first one-week middle school camp, girls designed, built and demonstrated lighting solutions for girls in Kenya to study at night. In the second week of middle school camp, girls made kitchen utensils to support the "safe stoves" that the high school students designed.
We believe that girls learn best in STEM when given the opportunity to collaborate. Once on our campus, we encourage girls to take risks and that failure is not only ok, but also an opportunity to learn. Then we teach them to try and try again. At Harpeth Hall we engage girls in inquiry-based and project-based learning, we build their 3D spatial skills through hands-on learning, and we tie their learning to a higher purpose. Studies show that girls need to know why their work matters. Finally, we expose them to and introduce them to role models that help them visualize their own path.
Girls need to see themselves in STEM
During the SSI camp we invited a diverse group of women currently working in STEM to speak to the girls about their careers. An electrical engineer, a professor of civil and architectural engineering, a chemical engineer who is now an international security policy specialist, an astrophysicist who now studies museum science, and a Vanderbilt University biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate were all participants. These women represented diversity in experience, background, race and ethnicity.
Our work did not stop at the end of camp, we also provide on-going support for the girls. If they need a college recommendation or a mentor, we are there for them. And, by the way, the designs they created at SSI this summer are being sent to Kenya in January to be evaluated for implementation.
We are already very excited about next year's STEM Summer Institute. Remember, we are working to end the gender gap in STEM for all girls...one girl at a time.
Dr. Barbara Bell is the director of the Center for STEM Education for Girls at The Harpeth Hall School in Nashville. Learn more at HarpethHall.org.