SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The launch of a hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics class at South Tahoe Middle School was a success for the 70 students who participated this year — but the course’s discrepancy in male to female students is indicative of the continued national struggle to get more girls involved in STEM programs.
At a recent Lake Tahoe Unified School District board meeting, teacher Jackie Tan gave an update on the STMS Maker Lab’s first semester. While the presentation was overwhelmingly positive, Tan pointed out that only 22 girls chose to participate compared to 49 boys.
“I think it was simply an unfortunate imbalance in scheduling,” said Tan. “It’s possible that there were more girls in leadership electives and art electives.”
Tan, who has a master’s in mechanical engineering, said she’s been trying to get the program started in the school district since seeing her niece’s experience with Maker Lab courses in the Bay Area.
“The Maker Lab is a workshop where we learn traditional hands-on skills as well as high-tech skills. We work with wood and fabric and paper, but also get into electricity and electronics and programming,” explained Tan. “When kids are engaged with their learning the time flies by.”
Currently she is working to get more girls involved in Maker Lab by encouraging them to try a shorter version of the program as their twice a week “incentive class.”
“If they get a taste of it, hopefully they will try the full program,” said Tan.
Getting more women involved in STEM careers has been a national challenge.
Women account for only 35 percent of the undergraduate degrees in STEM, a marker that has remained relatively unchanged for the past decade, despite earning almost 60 percent of college degrees, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Additionally, only one in seven women with a STEM degree actually works in that field.
Kevin Miller, senior researcher at American Association of University Women, said that while women are becoming better represented in certain fields of STEM, there are others where there still remain large gender gaps.
“Women are still doing really well in biological sciences and showing a lot more strength in representation in chemistry-related sciences,” said Miller. “But women are still really behind in physical computing and engineering.”
A 2010 research study by AAU entitled “Why So Few? Women in STEM” points to environmental and social barriers, such as stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in academia, that continue to hinder women’s progress in STEM.
The study explains how stereotypes, even those that are consciously refuted, can still hold at an unconscious level.
“A female student taking a math test experiences an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are not good at math,” reads the study. “A reference to this stereotype, even one as subtle as taking the test in a room of mostly men, can adversely affect her test performance. When the burden is removed, however, her performance will improve.”
Miller said raising awareness about biases, whether overt or implicit, is key, as is supporting programming that encourages young women to get involved in STEM.
FEMALE ROLE MODELS
Lake Tahoe is home to a number of female scientists, a handful of whom spend their days working to monitor, study and protect the lake through the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.
Heather Segale, education and outreach director at TERC, believes the key to getting more young girls involved in STEM is “more female mentors and examples of successful women in the field.”
“When I was in college, I started out in a highly technical field, and I was the only female in some of my classes. It can be intimidating if the professor and all of the students are male. You just don’t feel like you belong in the ‘boys club’ but you have to persevere,” added Segale.
Alison Toy, the program and docent coordinator at TERC, said she was encouraged to pursue science by a high school teacher who put effort into crafting engaging and passionate lessons.
“You should start young with all budding scientists and engineers,” said Toy. “Don’t force dolls or playing house on your daughters; let them play with Legos and chemistry sets. Encourage outdoor discovery and let them ask many questions … ”
Anne Liston, staff research associate at TERC, found an interest in science through her love of the outdoors.
“When I was going to school, most of my teachers were men in lab coats teaching in a very dry manner. However, there were two teachers who were great and they sparked my scholastic interest,” explained Liston. “Science is not always about the test tubes and labs coats. Not everyone is interested in that.”
Every year TERC offers a 16-week Youth Science Institute that shows high school students — both male and female — what it’s like to work as a scientist. They conduct experiments, ride on the research vessel on the lake, and work in the center’s 3-D visualization lab.
The South Shore also is seeing more hands-on STEM camps popping up over school breaks exposing students to robotics and other cutting-edge career opportunities.
“All kids need to find science through something that they are interested in,” continued Liston. “Parents and teachers can guide kids in a direction and support them through the learning process.”