Are STEM Careers for Girls at Risk? — by Sheila Boyington

The U.S. faces an increasing shortage in the STEM workforce: employment in STEM occupations is expected to grow 17 percent by 2018, while the number of college graduates in STEM fields continues to decline. In 2009, just 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded were in STEM fields, down from 24 percent two decades ago. Even more alarming: the gender and racial gap within the STEM workforce continues to widen. While women comprise 49% of the college-educated workforce, only 14% of engineers are women and just 27% are working in computer science and math positions. Similar disparities exist for Hispanic and African American workers, who account for only six percent of STEM workers. Recently it has come to light that the number of girls that are majoring in Computer Science has drastically dropped in the past 15 years.

A new Verizon commercial cites a sad statistic by the National Science Foundation: 66 percent of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female. Attracting additional girls and minorities into STEM requires new contexts for STEM instruction, since they do not respond as readily to traditional STEM activities that are based on a focus of science concepts. Girls especially respond more to careers that focus on helping others and research has demonstrated that women are attracted to engineering through the altruistic kind of work that engineers do.

An additional essential element to encouraging girls and minorities to follow STEM careers is exposure and awareness of technical careers. High school girls often do not know what engineering is. Girls who express an interest in STEM careers have had more exposure to STEM careers than other girls and that is usually through a family member or an adult mentor/role-model in their lives.

Many STEM programs include awareness of selected STEM careers that are associated with the selected science concepts, but a broader introduction to a larger set of students would be a potential factor in increasing the STEM workforce. A major factor in preventing this broader STEM awareness is the time available in schools for teaching the subject. STEM is most often relegated to the science classroom or teacher. However less than 25% of time in middle schools is devoted to science and the other 80% of the school day presents an opportunity if we can provide tools that demonstrate to other teachers that STEM instruction can simultaneously contribute to the goals of the other academic disciplines of English, mathematics and social studies.

Middle school is a time in students’ lives that is ripe for these new STEM interventions. 94% of eighth graders make course-taking decisions related to preparing themselves for postsecondary education or a career as discovered in research from the University of Massachusetts. Middle school students who do not consider a STEM major or career as a possible option may not enroll in the necessary high school coursework that would allow them to properly prepare for a STEM career. Surveys have also shown that young children and high school students tend to participate in more career-focused activities and discussions while upper elementary and middle school students are not as likely to learn about careers associated with the content that they are learning.

Therefore need to be able to provide more STEM career awareness during available time in the school day, without requiring extensive time and resources on the part of the teacher, and in a context that emphasizes the altruistic aspects of STEM careers. Additionally, it is important to understand if career awareness and self-efficacy is an additional metric that should be used to measure the effectiveness of STEM interventions in encouraging students to follow STEM pathways in addition to only intrinsic interest the in four pure STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Another way to influence girls into this space is mentoring. Mentoring provides young women and girls with the opportunity to have exposure to careers that they may not otherwise know about. In order to impact this area of work, DC-based STEMConnector® with the National Girls Collaborative launched Million Women Mentors. MWM is an engagement campaign and national call to action that mobilizes corporations, government entities, non-profit and higher education groups, around the imperative of mentoring girls and young women in STEM fields.

The idea is to get one million women and/or men to mentor up to 10 million girls and young women to encourage them to consider STEM careers. You can learn more about this effort and how you can get involved at www.millionwomenmentors.org.

Sheila Boyington

Sheila Boyington, MS, PE is co-Founder and President of Thinking Media. She also serves as Senior Advisor for STEMConnector.Sheila's current focus at Thinking Media is Learning Blade, a supplemental innovative system that includes curriculum that is focused on offering students real world learning experiences in STEM education while providing application of the Common Core Standards. Sheila brings a wealth of experience in implementing STEM programs and curricula at the state and local level, and aligning programs to workforce needs. Thinking Media was the creator of KeyTrain® that was acquired by ACT (where she also served as Vice President until 2012).  Sheila has been responsible for working in numerous states implementing the National Career Readiness Certificate initiatives to assist in workforce development.   Sheila has won numerous awards for her Entrepreneurship and Leadership including the Athena, Navigator of Entrepreneurship, Supernova, and Chattanooga Engineer Entrepreneur of the Year. Sheila is a Professional Engineer, and holds a Masters Degree in Civil/Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Florida. Sheila worked for environmental firms such as Black and Veatch, Parsons Engineering prior to founding Thinking Media.

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