What is STEM and why is it important?
STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM fields, and therefore STEM education, are vital to our future.
It is important because STEM fields touch every aspect of our likes. From the phone we can never seem to put down to the furnace that keeps our homes warm. From the researchers who develop new cures to the countless engineers and astronauts who keep the International Space Station and it’s hundreds of experiments running. From the game developers who find new ways to make learning fun to the environmental scientists who are working to researching save and preserve the 8.7 million species that call our pale blue dot home (Black, 2011). From the television shows we watch to the food we eat, STEM fields are part of our everyday lives more than most of us realize.
Taking a look at computer science related fields alone, by 2020 there will be a shortage of over 200,000 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) workers in Canada (Canada Learning Code, 2016).
Looking at US stats, over the next 10 years there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science alone and only about 400,000 grads qualified for those jobs (Code Stars, 2013).
Female enrollment in post-secondary STEM programs
According to the National Household Survey (NHS), women accounted for 39% of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree (Hango, 2015)
In an article in the Brown Daily Herald, the writer talks about a common problem. Of the female students interviewed for the article, many cited no outward hostility by their male peers and professors but they felt uncomfortable and sometime unwelcoming atmosphere in certain STEM courses (Weissmann, 2015). The uncomfortable environment can make female students less likely to ask questions or add to discussions.
In the US, among sophomore students in engineering only 32% are female, that dips down to 28% in computer science (Weissmann, 2015).
“My first year, I constantly felt like I didn’t belong in a field that I desperately wanted to belong in. If I wasn’t so stubborn, I probably wouldn’t still be here,” (Weissmann, 2015).
Female representation in STEM fields
It's much easier for girls to imagine a STEM career if they see successful examples. Largely, without this visual representation of what could be, girls can start to believe their dreams and ambitions are not possible.
In STEM professions, like engineering and medicine, largely require higher education or training, especially in mathematics. From the time of Isaac Newton to the late twentieth century, women were discouraged or outright forbidden from entering higher education (Women in STEM fields, n. d.). Since then, in North America, opportunities that were once only available to men are now fully available to women. Some countries, including Canada, more women than men are enrolled in higher education (Women in STEM fields, n. d.). In Canada, women represent the majority of young university graduates, but are still greatly underrepresented in science, technology, computer science, engineering, and mathematics STEM fields (Hango, 2015).
Another problem is the lack of female faculty representation in STEM departments. At Brown University, just 11% of the faculty in the physics department are women. Nationally only 14% of physics faculty members are women (Weissmann, 2015).
The NSF reports that women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation (Hardwood, 2016).
In a study conducted by the National Science Foundation, since the late 1990s women have earned 57% of all bachelor's degrees and about half of all science and engineering bachelor's degrees (National Science Foundation, 2017). The number of women is lowest in physics, engineering, and computer sciences. “Women earn just over one-third of the doctorates in economics and slightly more than one-fourth of the doctorates in mathematics and statistics.” (National Science Foundation, 2017).
“If we’re excluding half the population from being full partners in the scientific enterprise, then we as a society lose out” (Hardwood, 2016).
When & why are girls losing interest in STEM fields?
In an interview with CNN, Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts, had this to say about the current situation with girls and STEM, "When girls stop raising their hand in fourth grade because they are getting cues from people in their classroom that they shouldn't be raising their hand to answer a math question. These girls are craving an opportunity to see women in the roles that they aspire to." She went on to say "We found that 74% of high school girls love STEM. They enjoy it! But then we ask them to rank their potential career goals and STEM careers were at the bottom. And then we asked them why? They said because we don't see the females in those positions. We don't know what it's like. When we ask them what it is like to be a scientist, they have an image of an older man in his 60's in a white lab coat. That's not fun to them. That's not exciting" Anna Maria Chavez, CEO, Girl Scouts (Petroff, 2017).
A new survey commissioned by Microsoft found that young girls in Europe become interested in STEM subjects around the age of 11 and then quickly lose interest when they're 15 (Petroff, 2017). The same survey also found that girls' interest in subjects like the humanities drops around the same age but sharply rebounds but interest in STEM subjects does not recover (Petroff, 2017).
It's not just the lack of visual representation in STEM fields, it is also the messages intentional or unintentionally sent to girls by society, peers, parents, and mentors. The verbal and non verbal cues taken to heart that girls should and shouldn't do.
This commercial by Verizon titled "Inspire Her Mind" is an excellent example of how social cues can push a girl away from STEM interests early in life.
Many kids are not aware of the many exciting fields of study and opportunities that exist. This video demonstrates the confusion as to what STEM jobs are and how they visualize a job title vs the reality of that particular job.
What initiatives are in place to reignite interest in STEM subjects and what more needs to be done?
There are large variety of programs and initiatives in place in the US to promote interest in STEM subjects for girls. Some of these initiatives and organizations have spread to Canada but the moment is finally starting to gain momentum.
Google Canada continues to donate to Actua, a national network of colleges and universities that delivers STEM programming to more than 225,000 young people (Lewington, 2014). Actua's Google-funded Codemakers project offers hands-on computer science experiences, including fundamentals of coding, to more than 100,000 students in workshops and camps (Lewington, 2014).
Cisco Canada developed a program for its computer engineers to mentor more than 400 high school and post-secondary students assigned to work alongside them for the PAN AM Games (Lewington, 2014).
Microsoft Canada supports STEM education through its partnerships with youth-focused non-profits to teach free courses in code-making and games, expanding the company's annual support which includes free software for other non-profits of more than $45-million (Lewington, 2014). The corporate initiatives come as Canadian public schools struggle to equip students and teachers to harness technology as a tool of learning. A 2013 report by science outreach charity Let's Talk Science found that less than half of Canadian high school students graduate with senior STEM courses, although 70 per cent of top jobs require expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (Lewington, 2014). Post secondary institutions like Waterloo have after school programs to promote STEM and get kids interested through LEGO robotics.
Ladies Learning Code was founded in 2011 by Heather Payne, Melissa Sariffodeen, Breanna Hughes and Laura Plant with a single workshop held in Toronto (Ladies Learning Code, n. d.). Soon after they began holding monthly workshops and in 2012 they expanded across Canada, branching out to more than 18 cities across the country (Ladies Learning Code, n. d.). They have also developed programs including Girls Learning Code, Kids Learning Code, and Teachers Learning Code (Ladies Learning Code, n. d.).
Through the Youth STEM Initiative FedDev Ontario committed more than $13 million to 15 projects to encourage Ontario students from kindergarten to grade 12 to pursue an education and career in STEM (Youth STEM Initiative, 2015).
In 2016, Ladies Learning Code launched a new imitative called Canada Learning Code (Canada Learning Code, 2016). The initiative is a brilliant cross-sector coalition formed to increase the importance of digital literacy and improve access to coding education in Canada (Canada Learning Code, 2016).
Code.org : Hour Of Code takes place every year during Computer Science Education Week. It is a global movement to reach out to students in over 180 countries to learn code (Code.org, n. d.).
Girls Who Code is a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by Reshma Saujani when she discovered schools lacked girls in computer science (Girls Who Code, n. d.).
Stereotypes: Changing the narrative
This young girl clearly explains what is wrong with gender clothing. Even clothes encourage boys to be adventurous, to be open minded, to chase their dreams, to try anything. Girls clothing is focused on being pretty, feeling, attitude or how to spell "Hey".
#ILookLikeAnEngineer is a social media movement created by Software Developer Isis Anchalee. The movement aspires to break the stereotypes surrounding engineering and promote diversity around underrepresented groups with a focus on women, POC, and LGBT.
To help combat this issue, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo created a wonderful book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It is a children's book featuring 100 bedtime stories about the lives of 100 extraordinary women from the past and the present.
Once women enroll in a post-secondary STEM program, now what?
Once a women, fresh out of high school or mature student, have embraced their passion and enrolled in a post-secondary STEM program one of a few scenarios plays out. Chances are they will be one of a few, or possibly the only, female student in the year or in a particular section. Chances are that they arrive to their first class on the first day and walk into a large lecture theater and there are 1 or 2, maybe 4 or 5 women and the rest of the 45 or 100+ people are men. That can be very intimidating for anyone.
It is said often that the people make a workplace, the same could be said for a program. It is the professors and the students that make a program, that make a course. If the necessary comradely, support and mentor-ship is not present, it could spell disaster for any student. If you are the only female, or male for that matter, in a program or course filled with the opposite gender, it could make for a very lonely, discouraging experience.
Personal Reflection - Jennifer Short
Growing up, there were no female role models that spurred me into computer science. My parents were firm believers in technology. We were the first family on the street, and of our friends, to get a personal computer. I just grew up with it. As well, I have a very technical brother who is now an electrical engineer, and I was encouraged to learn and play with technology.
I am abundantly curious, geeky from a young age and the older I get the less I care about what other people think. I just get on with it. I was never discouraged because I didn’t see someone like me doing what I wanted to do. I saw what the guys were doing, it looked fun and I wanted to do it too. I was teased and bullied in school for that, and many other reasons, but I never let it affect my passions and interests. I have my mom to thank for that.
My first major interest academically in a STEM field came when a pilot project at my high school introduced us to graphic design via Photoshop. Shortly after, my parents signed up with Bell which was dialup back then, and my world opened up. I still remember the day I accidentally found View > Source and all this gibberish appeared in a text file. Once I discovered what HTML was I began to teach myself how to design and build websites. The fact that I could build whatever I dreamed up was so cool! I was hooked!
The decision to pursue a STEM caterer was a no brainier for me and it made my mom very proud that both her kids are geeks. After graduating from Durham College back in 2002 I worked for 6 years as a web developer before I started to get bored of web development and graphic design. In 2008 I returned to Durham College to peruse a Computer Programmer Analyst (CPA) diploma and it was one of the best decision I have ever made!
I was lucky that I have hardly ever let the opinions or comments of others interfere with my goals. From time to time it has messed with my self-confidence, but never for long. I was also luck that during my time in CPA I was in with a great group of people who were supported by a fantastic group of core faculty, one of whom became my mentor through the 3 years of the program.
In a conversation with my then program coordinator and mentor, he told me that about 5 years prior the then even male to female ratio began to shift dramatically.
I remember my first day in CPA clearly. I arrived early to one of the lecture theaters in UA and took a seat in the middle of the third row. As the room filled I realized I was 1 of 5 women of nearly 140 to be accepted as a first year student. By the time I reached third year the numbers had dropped dramatically and we were down to 3 women. 13 students in total for my program graduated that spring, myself and Megan were the only 2 women to graduate.
Flash forward to an early morning on a Friday in September of 2015 and I was standing in front of my first group of students with only 1 female registered. I have taught just 1 female with the exception of the fall semester of 2017 when I taught 4 women and it was fantastic! The winter 2017 semester started out with 3 women but 2 sadly dropped a few weeks in. The one who stayed is one of my top students but I worry if she will finish the program.
Being on the other side has given me new perspective on what girls in STEM programs go through, beyond my own experience. In 2017 we are still metaphorically patted on the head, patronizingly to an extend, and told we can't do something because we're female. Weather it's a vibe we feel in a classroom, or the comments a teacher or parents make, or how society tells us we should only be concerned with our friend count, how many likes we receive for a selfie, how being wrong is bad and that we should believe it when we are told engineering is really for boys. This is absolutely wrong and needs to stop.
All of my female students have complained to me and other professors about the lack of technical female professors. Between the technology and programming streams, there are 4 including myself. 2 are full time, 2 are contract like myself. A few have also have mentioned that they wish they knew the other women taking either the technology or programming streams.
I held on to those comments. They have given me a new perspective, a new driving force in my plans for the future.
While working on this assignment and developing the intended solution during this particular assignment it became obvious that the development of a similar initiative would be just adding to the pile. Reflecting on this, my experience in both post-secondary STEM programs and on the experience of my female students, a different solution was formulated.
Back in my time in CPA the core faculty made an effort to connect the female students form all years, even just via email. Sadly, now that the programs have grown so quickly and there are so many contract faculty, there is nothing in place for that to happen. There is a void that needs to be filled.
An idea has developed to start a club or society for DC women in IT. I have floated this past a number of the core faculty, including my former professors who in turn put out a test balloon of sorts with their female students and the response has been immediate and positive. A plan will be worked on over the summer and will perhaps be ready for the fall for form a community of women in the IT programs for support, assistance, and to connect with one another.
The solution developed will focus on bringing women in computer science programs together and it is in 2 parts:
- A video to be shared on social media raise awareness for the DC Women Rock IT initiative. It is important to connect and support each other, to share experiences and new perspectives and to understand how exciting computer science fields are and the vital role they play in our future.
- A social media presence via Twitter and a Facebook group to connect, inspire, educate and bring together women to encourage their passions in computer science.