Campus Leaders Confront STEM Stereotypes
In the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), one question remains as pressing as ever: Where are the women?
Ten schools earned 2015–16 AAUW Campus Action Project grants to tackle that question head-on this spring. Inspired by AAUW’s research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, students implemented projects to empower women and girls in those fields, where women are particularly underrepresented.
Shining the Spotlight on Women in STEM
The low percentage of women in STEM is a serious problem — and for the women who are in STEM fields, combating stereotypes and biases is an ongoing struggle. Several CAP teams addressed these issues by raising awareness about the challenges women in STEM face.
At Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, students invited Catherine Good, a researcher on how stereotypes affect students’ behavior, to share her expertise.
“She discussed intervention techniques like growth mindsets and belonging based on effort and engagement,” said Lauren Patzer, a member of the school’s CAP team. “And these work for all students, not just women.”
In West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University’s six-person CAP team and the school’s AAUW student organization planned a girls’ night at a local science museum for elementary school girls to explore careers and opportunities in engineering and technology. They also created a data display on campus about the underrepresentation of women and other groups in engineering.
“We wanted to build partnerships with the community and campus organizations to expand our impact,” said Dana Smith, former president of the AAUW student organization at Purdue University. “We felt like we reached this goal since we established a great relationship with the science museum to host similar events in future years.”
Another midwestern team, Kansas City Kansas Community College, helped shine a light on women in STEM by hosting a panel and collaborating with their school’s Lunafest film festival, which shows films by women, for women, and about women.
“It’s important to address these problems women are having in STEM fields and show students that they can rise above those problems to be successful in STEM,” said Madison Nesselhuf, president of the AAUW student organization at Kansas City Kansas Community College. “We believe we exceeded that goal. We even had a couple students reevaluate their majors after realizing they could be successful in STEM.”
At the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Georgia, students teamed up with College Girls Rock to share the importance of higher education with young women, and — more specifically — the value of pursuing a career in STEM. The team invited women doctoral candidates from Atlanta-area schools to its event, Plan Your Future in Engineering and Computer Science, where high school girls met local graduate school program representatives.
“This CAP team project was a great experience to educate and impact younger girls who did not have a desire to pursue postsecondary education initially,” said TaNesse Copeland, a student member of the team. “Our main goal was to open the high school students’ minds about what STEM fields entail.”
And that’s what the team did. Copeland says pre- and post-event surveys revealed that the project succeeded in raising awareness about STEM among the attendees. It feels good to make a difference, Copeland said, and she encourages others to try a project of their own. “Other students should consider applying for a CAP grant because it’s a great opportunity to collaborate with your community and have a positive influence on the lives of many people that you may have never known you’d inspire,” she said.
Social media advocacy can translate to real-world change. The #IAmAWomanInSTEM movement at the University of Kentucky, which aimed to empower undergraduates to pursue STEM degrees and careers, proves just that.
“You can be a woman in STEM, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or anything like that,” said student team member Shelby Albers. “We wanted a hashtag campaign that sounded strong and empowering.”
The #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative included four different outlets: a social media campaign using the hashtag, a mentoring program that paired undergraduates with positive female role models in STEM, a service learning course that allowed students to discuss the issues facing women in the STEM fields, and monthly meet and greets with members of the STEM community.
Another CAP team took full advantage of the power of the hashtag: At the University of Alabama, students used #CapstoneWomenInSTEM to highlight the experiences and accomplishments of women in STEM on campus and in the local community.
“I enjoyed seeing the project all come together,” said Danielle Russo, a student member of the University of Alabama team. “The CAP grant allows you to make a difference on your campus … by giving you the resources and support you need to complete your project. The feeling you get when you see everything come together makes all the hard work worth it.”
That sentiment is something that Stephanie Plucker from Dakota State University can relate to. Her seven-person CAP team brought mobile labs with Dot and Dash robots and cryptography kits to middle and high school girls to teach them about engineering and coding firsthand.
The team also created interactive social media content and blogs to continue mentoring students, offering more opportunities for girls to explore and create science and technology. Plucker said she knew the team had inspired their audience when she saw the excitement on the girls’ faces.
“Other students should apply for CAP grants because it’s great to see a project you’re passionate about be completed,” Plucker said. “The grant helps start a change — and even if it’s just a small change, it still feels amazing to say you were a part of it.”
Girls Shift the Status Quo
Research shows that reaching girls at a young age is crucial to closing the STEM gap, so several of the 2015–16 AAUW CAP teams incorporated youth outreach and mentorship programs to reach the next generation of women in STEM.
In collaboration with the Central Oregon STEM Hub, the AAUW Bend (OR) Branch, and the AAUW student organization at Oregon State University, Cascades, the school’s CAP team hosted an evening with Bonnie Buratti, a NASA research scientist. Along with their families, middle and high school students heard Buratti discuss her journey of becoming an astrophysicist and what it takes to become a scientist today.
“Society wants more women in STEM but also sends messages that they can’t do it,” said Beverly Schlegel, president of the AAUW student organization at Oregon State University, Cascades. “We wanted to find out who the role models are for women interested in STEM, which opportunities exist for women in STEM, and how we can create community support for women in STEM.”
The University of Alabama, Birmingham, team recruited girls in sixth through eighth grade to participate in a daylong event where STEM leaders from the university and the surrounding community taught hands-on workshops. The event was free so that families from all socioeconomic levels could attend, and the team provided free transportation for some participants.
“We wanted to address what girls want from STEM and think about how we can foster their imagination and increase diversity in STEM,” said Ramsha Farrukh, a member of the team.
Students at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, served as mentors and provided positive examples of women in engineering and computing to a local Girl Scout troop. Students taught the scouts, ages 5–9, about engineering and computer science through hands-on activities, including Lego Mindstorms robot kits.
“I enjoyed seeing the girls who didn’t know what engineering was become inspired to be engineers themselves,” said Claudia Trafton, a member of the team. “One moment they would be frustrated with a problem, and the next moment they solved it and felt super smart — because they are!”
Trafton says the project isn’t just a great opportunity to change your community; it’s a great leadership and confidence-building experience for the team members themselves. “It was a lot of work, but you really do make a difference,” Trafton said. “Don’t worry that your idea isn’t good enough or that you won’t be able to do it — AAUW will help you through the whole thing.”
Find out more about our powerhouse 2015–16 Campus Action Project grantees.
AAUW Campus Action Project grants give students the opportunity to take action in their communities to target the barriers faced by women and girls.
One woman shares how an AAUW Tech Trek camp led her to pursuing a career in STEM.