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VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 09, 2015

Convincing Girls, Women to Pursue Science and Math Careers

Oak Ridge researcher on why STEM fields need women, vice versa

AMANDA B. WOMAC | The Ledger

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Claudia Rawn is used to talking about science, so when asked to speak about women in the STEM disciplines, she was a bit out of her comfort zone.

The speaking invitation came from organizers with the University of Tennessee’s inaugural Women in STEM Research Symposium, held in April.

Leondra Lawson, a first-year Ph.D. student in the chemistry department, has seen some increase in females in science over the past few years, but thinks we still have a ways to go.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“My research has an introduction, discussion about the methodologies and results, and I feel very sure of it,” explains Rawn, a senior research staff member in the Diffraction and Thermophysical Properties Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee’s Materials Science and Engineering Department.

“I’ve done a talk on women in STEM before and have really enjoyed it, but it’s a much more difficult problem than I usually work on because there are so many different factors.

“It’s not a controlled laboratory experiment.”

The National Science Foundation developed the acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – in the 1990s to represent the need for integration of scientific disciplines and a push towards science in order to maintain the United States’ ability to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Since then, educational institutions have worked to increase student engagement in science; specifically in grades K-12.

“We are banking a lot on STEM disciplines in the future, so it needs talented, creative people. The focus of my talk [was] two-fold: why STEM fields need women and why women need to be in STEM fields,” Rawn says.

Chilling environment

There are several hypotheses for why there are fewer women than men in STEM disciplines that range from a general lack of interest in science to the difference in spatial skills between men and women.

“One of the factors is the chilling environment for women in science,” notes Rawn. “Many times, when a group of men are working together, they assume technical competence; but when a woman comes along, we have to prove ourselves. Sometimes, the chilling effect can be downright hostile if sexual harassment is involved.”

Another explanation for the lack of women in STEM disciplines is what’s known as the leaky pipeline effect, which is used to describe the trend of women dropping out of STEM fields at all stages of their careers.

One of the most important leaks in this pipeline occurs during adolescence when teachers often give boys more opportunities to figure out solutions on their own while telling the girls to follow the rules. This is partly due to expectations of gender within our society – boys should be active, but girls should be quiet and obedient.

According to Londa Schiebinger, author of Has Feminism Changed Science?, women are twice as likely to leave their jobs in science and engineering as men because of both the overt and covert discrimination women face.

In engineering and science education, women make up almost 50 percent of non-tenure track lecturer and instructor jobs, but only 10 percent of tenured or tenure-track professions.

“Issues surrounding women and minorities in STEM fields have always been a personal interest of mine,” says Mallory Ladd, graduate research fellow at the Bredesen Center at UT and one of the organizers for the Women in STEM Research Symposium.

“After joining the Commission for Women at UT, I noticed there were very few students or individuals from the STEM disciplines involved in the Commission, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Beyond K-12

Shelby Ward, left, Jess Welch, Cassie Dresser and Kelly Rooker from UT’s Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department participate in the inaugural Women in STEM Research Symposium.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Ladd approached Dr. Mary Papke, chair of UT’s Commission for Women, who encouraged her to create a women in STEM initiative through the Commission.

“Usually, when people think of STEM education, K-12 comes to mind. While it’s very important, undergraduate and graduate students are often left out of the conversation and are expected to figure it out for themselves,’’ explains Ladd.

“We decided this is where we wanted to focus our initial efforts.’’

The inaugural Women in STEM Research Symposium took place Saturday, April 18 on the campus and featured research from women in STEM disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“Research is extremely important in STEM fields,” adds Ladd.

“With so few female students in STEM, and even fewer faculty mentors, coupled with the fact that scientific research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, we found it important to bring together all the STEM fields in a collective effort to start addressing some of these key issues.”

Organizers of the symposium also noted that equal status and representation of women in STEM disciplines is essential to UT’s Top 25 strategy to out-educate, out-innovate and out-build other public universities.

“We decided we wanted to hold an annual event that would highlight the wide variety of research and scholarly contributions being made by women in all of the 50+ STEM fields at UT, while also increasing awareness and starting a conversation about the importance of recruiting, retaining and supporting underrepresented groups in STEM,” says Ladd.

“We chose Dr. Rawn for our keynote speaker because she has been an advocate for women and minorities for some time and has spoken about the key issues we wanted to address at this symposium. We knew her talk would not only fit the audience, but also be extremely informative and engaging. She did not let us down.”

Hands-on science and CSI

The symposium also featured a question-and-answer panel discussion, a women in STEM informational exhibit and poster sessions featuring undergraduate and graduate research by women in STEM disciplines.

Lindsey O’Neal, a second year graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry, Cellular & Molecular Biology, took part and picked up some interesting information.

“I think this is a very good stepping stone for how women can be more involved and more aware of all the opportunities we have here at UT,” O’Neal says. “Before the conference, I didn’t even know there was a Commission for Women at UT.”

O’Neal’s love for science was fueled in high school when she participated in hands-on experiments such as making rockets from 2-liter plastic bottles or frying an egg on a satellite dish.

“It was cool things like those experiments that made me want to pursue science in college,” adds O’Neal.

This was a common theme among the women presenting their research at the symposium. Hands-on experiences and engagement in science were the main factors that helped them pursue a degree in science.

Leondra Lawson, a first-year PhD student in the chemistry department, credits her mom and the television show CSI for her love of science.

“I’ve always wanted to do forensics,” explains Lawson, whose research focuses on developing better methods for pulling prints off a variety of materials such as bullets, plastic bags and other items often found at crime scenes.

“I saw ‘CSI’ and fell and in love. My mom also worked for the FBI and would always bring me around, so I knew there were some opportunities for science in the FBI.”

Lawson has seen some increase in females in science over the past few years, but thinks we still have a ways to go.

“In college, I’ve seen more people reaching back to show people in high school there are actually females in science, but I’m still outnumbered,” Lawson adds. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conference. It’s nice to not be outnumbered by men and see what other contributions women are making to the STEM disciplines.”

Throughout the day, around 150 people attended the conference, including the 42 student presenters from 16 different departments.

“We were very pleased with the turnout considering this was the first year of the conference,” notes Ladd. “Our hope for the event is to eventually increase it to become a multiple day conference that people from all around the state and region will travel to attend.”

Rawn enjoyed participating in the conference, even if she sometimes feels she’s preaching to the choir.

“It’s good to get the conversation going,” Rawn says. “I’ve seen so many great talks and accomplished young women scientists who are really into their work and want to encourage them to stay with it. I love science. It’s been a great career for me.”

At next year’s Women in STEM Research Symposium, organizers will feature research from both postdoctoral and faculty women in STEM fields in addition to undergraduate and graduate research. Further on down the line, Ladd would like to also include a career expo as part of the symposium and invite recruiters from local industry, government agencies and academia.

Call to action

There are several opportunities for women and girls to engage in STEM disciplines.

According to a Girls in STEM Factsheet published by the White House Council on Women and Girls, a variety of programs exist specifically to expand STEM learning opportunities for girls and inspire an interest in these fields through exposure to role models and mentors.

President Obama’s “all-hands-on-deck” call to action in April of 2012 inspired a number of private-sector partners to join with the Administration and commit to expanding STEM opportunities for girls. Some of those include the following:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed an online mentoring program – Giving Initiative and Relevance to Learning Science (G.I.R.L.S.) – that offers middle school girls one-on-one mentoring for women working at the agency. Among the program’s several goals, increasing the relevancy of learning STEM disciplines to girls, increase critical thinking skills of young girls and encouraging girls to take initiative and inspire their peers and communities to learn more about STEM are at the top.

Girls Inc., an organization that inspires girls “to be strong, smart and bold” by providing mentoring opportunities for more than 138,000 girls across the U.S. and Canada, also launched a STEM initiative to help girls explore STEM disciplines and develop mentoring opportunities. With grants from private-sector companies like The Merck Company and Lockheed Martin, the mentoring program has expanded nationally. In fact, a two-year grant from The Merck Company Foundation, awarded in 2012, supported a program that engages underserved girls in hands-on experiences in a college campus environment in Memphis.

A collaboration between The Entertainment Industries Council, the International 3D Society, Women in Film and the Visual Effects Society works to mobilize the entertainment world to inspire girls and women to pursue technical careers within the entertainment industry. Encouraging engagement is STEM is nothing new for the EIC, which already has a Science, Engineering and Technology Award to recognize outstanding programming promoting STEM fields.

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that Girl Scouts of the USA has joined the fight for increasing the number of women and girls in STEM.

A partnership with Mocha Moms, a national support network for moms of color, provides mentoring and adult volunteer support for IMAGINE Your STEM Future and other STEM programs as part of Mocha Moms’ community service initiative.

There are several other organizations focused on increasing the number of women in STEM disciplines and plenty of research that supports the fact that young girls actually do like science.

A report by the Girls Scouts of America, published in 2012, shows that nearly three quarters of the girls surveyed exhibited an interest in STEM.

“We are all individuals who’ve had different levels of encouragement to enter STEM disciplines,” notes Rawn. “That’s what makes this issue so multi-variable. It’s really amazing.”

From the leaky pipeline effect to a lack of mentoring opportunities, there are several factors that affect the increase of women and girls in STEM disciplines.

However, there are plenty of growing opportunities for girls to be exposed to ways in which STEM careers can help them achieve their goals so that one day, the dialogue about increasing women and girls’ engagement in STEM will eventually disappear.

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