Getting Girls Hooked on STEM Careers

Early outreach programs aim to get more young women engaged in high-tech careers // Photographs by Martin Vecchio

Even though Elizabeth McLean was always an “A” student, and her parents work in science-related careers, she never felt all that inspired about technology — until she learned how to make Silly Putty, that is.

McLean attended a Girl Scouts day camp where college students in the Society of Women Engineers talked about different types of engineering — and worked with scouts on hands-on activities, which included creating a putty-like concoction.

Suddenly, something clicked.

“I never saw in school the connection between what I was learning and real life,” says Elizabeth, 21, who’s now a mechanical-engineering senior at Kettering University in Flint. “It was a really simple thing, but it made the connection.”

Getting young Americans — especially girls — interested in the ever-growing number of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) jobs is essential to a competitive national economy. So crucial that even the president has expressed concern over the shortage of qualified workers.

Research shows that to get girls hooked on STEM, you have to reach them before middle school, when their interest in math and science often wanes.

The Girl Scouts, which sparked Elizabeth’s interest in engineering, are definitely trying to do that. Last year, the organization surveyed girls and published a national study, “Generation STEM,” which found that “girls interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.”

Those are the kind of young women the Scouts want in their organization, and the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan are hoping to nurture that by offering related programs for all ages.

Sometimes, the approach is highly imaginative, even whimsical: One program for girls as young as kindergarten includes making a graham-cracker house and subjecting it to an “earthquake.”

“We want to get them started thinking about STEM careers,” says Caroline Feathers, series and events specialist.

Educators are trying different approaches, too. Dr. Sally Roberts, of Wayne State University’s College of Education, has gotten middle-school girls thinking about STEM careers through a program she calls Gaining Options-Girls Investigate Real Life, or GO-GIRL, which she started 11 years ago.

GO-GIRL includes summer academies where participants complete a research project and participate in activities with professionals such as pharmacists and nurses; activities for parents; and mentoring by WSU education undergraduates in person and via social media.

“We’ve grown from a 10-week interventional program to really a suite of activities,” says Roberts.

That may be an understatement: GO-GIRLs, who are picked through applications, now number about 4,000 graduates, and represent a broad range of backgrounds from the tri-county, according to Roberts.

GO-GIRL Kennedy Brown, 13, an eighth-grader at Bates Academy in Detroit, attended in 2012, even though she’s “more of a person who likes to listen to music, or write poetry, or act out a scene.” Even so, “It helped my brain work out over the summer.”

Kennedy’s mentor, Jennifer Woodard, is a WSU sophomore majoring in biochemistry, biology, and Spanish, who sees her future in public health. She keeps in touch with her GO-GIRL mentees via social media, answering their questions, posting articles about women in STEM careers, and writing personal entries about college life.

“I think what’s more important than encouraging these girls is for them to have a more open mind about women in STEM fields … an awareness that women can be successful,” Woodard says.

More traditional co-ed programs are also trying to encourage girls’ interest in STEM. For example, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has offered “A World in Motion” — its classroom-based, hands-on program — for 20 years. Volunteer engineers work with students K-12. They might work with the youngest students on testing homemade paper helicopters to improve their flying power.

“SAE saw the perfect storm brewing in terms of STEM fields that we’re seeing now,” with fewer workers than jobs, says Mary Kaczorowski, SAE Foundation development manager.

Others in the auto industry are also getting involved. Industry guru David Cole is forming a coalition, Building America’s Tomorrow, to excite kids about STEM degrees useful in modern manufacturing careers. “One of our particular problems is getting the K through 12 kids interested in making things,” he says.

Cole is fundraising for a video he wants to produce to show kids some of the people working in manufacturing jobs. “One of the featured elements will be job opportunities for young women,” he says.

Another organization, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), is surveying participants in its robotics, tech, and Lego competitions to see how girls fare versus boys.

“There’s a lot of interest in the community on moving the needle in terms of getting more girls involved, as well as underserved populations,” says Nancy Boyer, FIRST’s evaluations manager.

Boyer says preliminary results showing whether FIRST is creating female STEM professionals of the future are due in September.

Career Paths

Girls need role models to inspire them for careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Here are three women successful in STEM professions:

The Water Detective. Dr. Joan Rose, Microbiologist

Microbiologist Dr. Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University, is a water detective who searches for clues about pathogens in waterways that make people sick.

School/career path: “As a child, I was interested in science and biology. I had an ant farm, chemistry set, loved watching Jacques Cousteau and clouds in the sky, while wondering about the vastness of the universe. I volunteered as a candy striper and took medical samples to the laboratory in a hospital. I really thought that what they did was so cool. My parents encouraged all types of activities; both felt you should follow your interests.

“It is just plain fun. What I love is that no matter where you go, there is a water story to be told. People care about water, so when you do your work, you feel like what you do makes a difference to the public.

“As a professor in a university, you get to meet young people who are excited about learning from you while you’re teaching, doing science experiments, exploring a watershed. You’re always learning something new, as well.”

Going Solo: “When I began working more in water science and engineering, I realized it was very male-dominated. “There are so many times that you have to stick up for yourself, even with your male colleagues [who] you respect and who have helped you. They just don’t see that what they’re saying or how they’re acting is prejudiced or creating a sexist environment.

“Now I realize how fortunate I was and how important it is to have mentors, both male and female, as you start out in any new profession.”

Opportunities: “If someone loves teaching, looking through a microscope, playing in rivers, walking along beaches, and/or fishing, there are so many opportunities to become an educator, conservationist, environmentalist, or a microbiologist.

“Microbiology is a field where you can work in food safety, product manufacturing such as pharmaceuticals, water safety, medicine, and education. Many government agencies need water scientists.

“Follow your passion, find mentors, join professional organizations, go to national and international conferences, work hard, find collaborators, and don’t ever stop learning.”

Cheating Reality: Elizabeth Baron, Virtual Reality Programmer

Elizabeth Baron uses virtual-reality programs to test products at the Ford Motor Company Immersive Vehicle Evaluation Lab. She has a computer-aided design programming degree.

School/career path: “I’ve just been basically a nerdy geek person all my life. Before I knew what a science and engineering field was, it was just my nature to think along those lines. Even so, when I went to college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in.

“What I’m doing now didn’t exist when I hired in at Ford in 1988 as a programmer writing software for computer-aided design. I pretty much invented my job. I actually went to a boss and said I would like to do virtual reality.

“One of the things I love about my job is that it’s a mix of art and science.”

Going Solo: “In the lab, I’m the only woman here with nine men. Being different from most of my colleagues doesn’t mean I’m at a disadvantage. I’m just aware of the different ways we think.”

Opportunities: “In general, working in the computer-graphics industry is very much in demand, especially for women. There’s a big, untapped market for video games that women and girls would enjoy, and there’s also a lot in media and entertainment.

“Keep your perspective. You can have a job that can be good and bad at the same time.

“Be resourceful. Sometimes when you’re an innovator, no one’s ever done what you’re doing before. If you find a better way (to do something), you need to be able to go back and defend what you did and [have] the confidence to say it’s the right thing.

“Have fun. In the lab, we laugh every day. I mean uproarious laughter. It’s part of understanding your co-workers and then just connecting with them. It’s not an unproductive thing.

“If you think you’re going to get a job and think, ‘Cool, I got my job and I’m done,’ you’re not.

“Make contacts in associations in your field. That’s something nobody told me to do, and I don’t know how I started doing it, but it’s incredibly helpful. I learn a lot from them, and I hope they learn from me, too.”

Early Entrepreneur: Malvika Bhatia, Microbiologist

While earning a degree in mechanical engineering, Malvika Bhatia, a native of India, helped start Design Innovations for Infants and Mothers Everywhere to make medical devices for use in poor areas. Bhatia believes her entrepreneurship helped her get into the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and knows for a fact that it recently helped her land a managerial job with Microsoft.

School/career path: “All the male members of my family are engineers. My dad always kept my interest up in science and math from a young age, and I was also very good at it.

“There is the opportunity to change the world. Basically, we have the opportunity to develop technologies that are helping people.”

Going Solo: “Mechanical engineering is very male-dominated. In general, it (school) was OK, except for times when doing teamwork, I was usually the only girl on a team. Boys try to kind of baby you a little. That was not acceptable to me because I was trained just as well as they were.

“When we went to work in the machine shop, sometimes I would struggle to tighten things or untighten them.

“For most of my internships in engineering, I went back to India, and I was one of the only girls. When I would go into the factory sometimes to figure out what was going on, the men wouldn’t talk to me as well as they would the male engineers. One of them even asked my boss in front of me why he hired a girl to work on the shop floor. My manager had to tell him right there that she’s smart and she’s trained just as well. It needs to become a group effort where girls, all of us, are not letting boys get away with that attitude toward women.”

Opportunities: “I think that with a degree like engineering, you can do so much more (than with other degrees).

“Break out and do what others haven’t done before. It is harder to do that because a lot of times people don’t understand what you are going for. When you find something you really believe in and you think can work, no matter how many people ask questions, don’t be afraid to do what you believe in.”