How Do We Bridge the Gender Gap in Science? Women in STEM Lead the Charge
In the 1950s, Karin Marge Ostrom never questioned her decision to pursue a degree in chemistry from Rutgers University.
After graduating with high honors, Ostrom began what would become a successful career as a research chemist. Over the years, she synthesized organic compounds for pharmaceutical research, studied patients with chemosensory disorders, and developed clinical protocols for researching infant formulas. She also earned a master’s in biology and a doctorate in nutritional sciences.
“When I finally retired, I started to wonder why we still didn’t have a slew of women in chemistry, why we are still trying to get more women into science,” Ostrom says. “Reflecting back, I realized that through the years we women had to struggle more, just to be recognized and accepted in the field. Sadly, while we’ve made some strides, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Florida Girls Get Schooled — and Inspired
As AAUW’s groundbreaking report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics points out, men continue to outnumber women in science and engineering, especially at the upper levels of these professions. Recent data indicate that women make up a mere 14 percent of the engineering workforce and just over 25 percent of the computing workforce.
And so, in 2013, when the AAUW of Florida president applied to bring the National Tech Trek Pilot Program to the Sunshine State, Ostrom knew it was the perfect opportunity to encourage girls to pursue the fields that brought her so much joy in school and satisfaction in her career.
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Tech Trek—a one-week science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) camp for rising eighth-grade girls—was launched 17 years ago by AAUW of California member Marie Wolbach at Stanford University. After seeing how the program, which has since expanded to 10 camps in California, significantly increases girls’ self-confidence and interest in the STEM fields, AAUW decided to take it nationwide. In 2013, AAUW began the National Tech Trek Pilot Program to expand Tech Trek to Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington. In 2014, AAUW brought Tech Trek to three additional states: Alabama, New Mexico, and Oregon.
In the summer of 2014, AAUW of Florida held their second Tech Trek camp. For one week in July, 40 girls from all over the state came to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they performed hands-on experiments on the effects of hurricanes, met women role models in STEM careers, and went on field trips to the local marine laboratory and aquarium to see their lessons put into practice.
“During Tech Trek, these girls learn that they shouldn’t settle,” says Ostrom, who is the camp’s assistant director. Ostrom recalls one girl who told her that before attending the camp, she never realized there were so many opportunities for her in STEM careers. “She said excitedly, ‘I can be a marine biologist if want to!’” says Ostrom. “At Tech Trek, girls learn that if they want to pursue studies and a career in STEM, they can. There is nothing to stop them from succeeding.”
Member Programs Spark and Spread
This year, AAUW also helped grow another successful STEM program for girls: The Praxair Foundation provided grants, and AAUW provided training and ongoing support to bring the National Tech Savvy Pilot Program to 10 more sites. Started by the AAUW Buffalo (NY) Branch, under the leadership of engineer and former branch President Tamara Brown, the daylong Tech Savvy conference introduces middle school girls to the exciting educational and career opportunities available in STEM. Like Tech Trek, Tech Savvy has shown impressive results: Participants of both programs report that their perceptions and attitudes about STEM are more positive, their knowledge of STEM careers has increased, and they’re more likely to pursue careers in science or technology. In 2015, Tech Savvy will grow to 16 sites.
“After I earned my doctorate, I was fortunate to have a rewarding job in science that I really, really loved,” adds Ostrom. “I am thrilled to encourage others to strive for the same. The work for these STEM programs is challenging, but exposing these girls to scientific curricula and making it fun for them is something very much worth doing.”
You Can Help Close the Gender Gap in STEM
These STEM programs are supported by generous contributions to the AAUW Fund. Help AAUW members bring STEM programs to girls in their communities by giving to the AAUW Fund today.
This story was written by freelance writer Beth Pearsall for the 2014 AAUW annual report.
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