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Bridging the Gap

Programs for girls in science and engineering

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? Most children fantasize about jobs that are familiar, such as teacher, doctor or firefighter. Often careers in science and engineering are not as easily understood. For girls in particular, it is easy to overlook these fields, not due to lack of interest, but because of limited accessibility.

Women in the field of science and engineering represent a professional world that can be virtually untapped by younger girls. Think back to your own influences, whether they were parents, teachers or mentors. Did these influential people in your life shape your own career path? Now imagine how difficult it would have been to traverse this route without their guidance and support.

The Great Gender Divide

There is no disputing the gender gap in science and engineering fields. According to the National Science Foundation study, “Women, Minorities and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2004,” females now account for half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. The number of women in these fields increased every year since 1966 (excluding 1988) until it reached 202,583 in 2001. However, that equitable-sounding statistic is misleading. The field of science and engineering is broad, and the majority of women in the sciences today are receiving degrees in the biological sciences, rather than the physical sciences, engineering and computer science. While biological sciences are growing, the survey shows that the percentage of females graduating with computer science bachelor’s degrees has actually dropped since 1985, reaching 28% in 2001.

Programs for girls in science and engineering

Additionally, when the sciences are broken down by graduate work, females accounted for only 20% of degrees in engineering and 30% of degrees in computer sciences in 2001. And women made up only 26% of employed doctorate holders in science and engineering in 2001. The study also showed that women were more likely to be employed in educational institutions and less likely to be engineers and computer scientists, occupations that tend to be employed in business and industry.

The good news is that the country is starting to take notice. Across the nation, at non-profits and on university campuses, programs are springing up to help bridge the gender gap and challenge the status quo. And college students and recent graduates are in the best position to help spark change. As role models, facilitators and mentors, you can make a difference, sharing your experience and inspiring younger girls to consider science and engineering fields.

Middle school is usually considered the critical time to begin outreach to girls and get them excited about science and engineering. For the first time, students need to make decisions about their education, choosing classes and academic tracks that can influence their futures. If a girl develops an interest at that stage, she can then follow it up by taking science, engineering and math courses in high school and beyond.

Following are several innovative programs helping girls to foster their interest in science and engineering. Through early outreach, girls can better understand their career options in the fields of science, technology and engineering. They can experience and enjoy success in these exciting fields and make informed decisions on cutting-edge future careers—creating a whole new generation of talented young women in these fields.

EDGE, LEAP and ScienceScape

Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., runs the Women in Engineering Program, which offers three different summer camps for girls. LEAP, which stands for Love Engineering at Purdue, runs two sessions: one for sixth and seventh grade girls, and another for seventh and eighth grade girls who have previously participated in LEAP. They also run a program called EDGE, which stands for Exciting Discoveries for Girls in Engineering, for girls entering their sophomore and junior years of high school.

These camps are open to girls across the country. They are designed to both expose them to engineering and be a fun experience. “They give participants an expanded view of the world,” says Beth Holloway, the director of the program, where girls get to interact with different people from all over the country. During their one-week stay, the girls work in small groups on construction projects such as making flashlights. They also tour campus labs, and visit local corporate environments such as the Subaru automobile plant in nearby Lafayette, Ind.

Programs for girls in science and engineering

As Holloway states, “students in the K-12 educational system don’t get exposed to engineers and the way that engineers make a positive impact on our society.” Programs such as EDGE and LEAP show them that engineering is socially relevant.”

ScienceScape, also at Purdue, is another weeklong residential summer program for girls entering seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Barbara Clark, the director of Purdue’s Science Diversity Office and director of the Women in Science Program, describes how exposing girls to different scientific, computing and engineering fields can expand their futures. She says that in this day and age, it is hard to believe that girls will get advice from teachers, counselors and parents such as “Why do you need to take that extra math class? You’re just going to get married anyway,” but Clark says she hears this regularly. “Middle school is when it matters,” she says. “As girls define themselves and make choices, we can’t let the doors close.”

BeWISE

Another program, centered in San Diego County is BeWISE. The program, Better Education for Women in Science and Engineering, was initiated through the San Diego Science Alliance to encourage more women to pursue the physical sciences, computer science and engineering. Pat Winter, the project director, describes the program as science overnights for girls in seventh and eighth grade. Every school in San Diego County is notified about the program and all girls are invited to apply for the overnights.

Programs for girls in science and engineering

The program became so popular that additional overnights have been added. “This year, we expanded from two overnights that could accommodate 80 girls to three overnights, which offered spaces for 120 girls,” Winter states. Centered around different themes such as conservation, the evenings consist of puzzle games, team based activities and keynote speakers. The overnights are grant-funded so there is no charge to the girls.

Once a girl becomes an alumna of the program, the outreach continues. They are invited to events and programs, including trips to the Earthquake Laboratory and the Scripps Institute, which enables them to keep up with their interest in science.

Girlstart

Girlstart is a non-profit organization in Austin, Texas, created to empower girls to excel in math, science and technology.

It offers after-school programs, Saturday camps and summer camps for middle school girls where they can build their awareness of math, science and technology, while receiving support and encouragement.

Founded in 1997 in Austin by Executive Director Rachel Muir, Girlstart seeks to show girls that a career in math, science, engineering or technology is a feasible and exciting option. “We do this by providing hands-on, interactive, crazy, fun experiences that show girls real-world applications of these subjects,” says Muir. “Most girls believe that these particular fields are boring, boyish and isolating.” However, Girlstart shows them the relevance of these fields in their own lives.

Currently Camp Girlstart is in the middle of their seventh year. Camps are centered around pop culture themes that appeal to the campers, such as television shows like American Idol and Survivor. At the camps, girls learn to create and produce videos, create Web sites, and develop and market new inventions. Other special events include bringing girls from underserved populations to spend a day at the University of Texas where they can imagine themselves on a college path. Like all the programs, Girlstart draws their mentors and volunteers from college women in science, engineering and technology.

One Mentor’s Story

Euridice Oware is a Ph.D. candidate in engineering education at Purdue. During the summer of 2005, she’d just completed a week working as an EDGE facilitator with girls finishing ninth and tenth grade. As a facilitator, she worked with the girls during the day, helping them with tasks ranging from building Lego robots to learning about teamwork.

Programs for girls in science and engineering

Oware felt the girls came away from the program understanding the diversity of engineering and the variety of opportunities for work as an engineer. “Engineers contribute so much to society and greatly impact the way we live,” she says. “Many of the speakers stressed the importance of not only learning and becoming competent engineers, but also staying involved in activities and becoming leaders.” Oware saw the girls as fun, energetic and enthusiastic.

“It was surprising how curious they were and how well they worked together on their projects,” she states. The program gave the girls the opportunity to channel their excitement and let it grow by working with other like-minded students.

In her own past, Oware found that an undergraduate co-op experience helped her make the decision to pursue a degree in engineering. She always enjoyed math and science, and she developed that interest by belonging to a science club in high school. After beginning college as an architecture and engineering student, her co-op internship showed her that engineering was the right career choice. “I always wanted to do something that involved creativity, problem solving and helped improve the lives of people around me,” Oware says. Through her work as a facilitator, she is able to share her passion with the next generation.

What Can You Do?

Why is it so important for college students and new professionals to volunteer their time and assistants as mentors to the next generation of young women engineers and computer scientists? According to Barbara Clark, serving as role models is the key. “Many younger girls have never seen a women scientist or engineer before,” she says. “If you ask them to draw a picture of scientist or engineer, it will be a white male in a lab coat.”

To fight this image, college women and recent grads can answer the questions that girls most want to hear. “They are concerned with issues such as will they still be able to have a social life, or later on, will they be able to have time for a family,” Clark explains. By seeing vibrant women who have full lives in addition to being scientists and engineers, girls can identify and visualize themselves in these roles.

How can you get involved and influence the future leaders in science and technology? This list of possibilities gives you some ideas of how you can make a difference.

1. Begin with your current campus or alma mater. Find out what types of mentoring programs exist, as well as opportunities for alumni. Many career centers run alumni panels centered on different career fields, among other programs. Additionally, campus chapters of professional associations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) often run career related events.

2. If you are living in a region far from your alma mater, or if you are in your home state for the summer, contact local colleges and universities. They might offer programs, events or speaking opportunities.

3. Create relationships with local high schools. Beth Holloway suggests contacting the guidance office to find out about career days where you can speak to classes about science and engineering. Reach out to middle and elementary schools as well.

4. Try volunteering at local organizations that work with young girls. Girl Scouts of America (www.girlscouts.org) and Girls, Inc. (www.girlsinc.org) are good places to start. A local science museum may be another outlet.

5. Take the initiative to begin local chapters of national organizations. Some good ones to try include FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) at www.usfirst.org and Math/Science Network’s Expanding Your Horizons at www.expandingyourhorizons.org.

6. Stand by the girls you have met and mentored. “Girls are relational creatures and that’s part of why they have not historically been drawn to math and science careers,” says Rachel Muir. [Those fields] have a nasty reputation of being isolating and only for geeks and introverts. Girls need to see that mathematicians, scientists and engineers can be real women who are fun, outgoing, smart and completely normal!”

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is a career counselor and free-lance writer in Connecticut. She is the author of the forthcoming book Career Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector, to be published by Facts on File, Inc. in 2006.

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