Columbia State Community College: Female Participation in STEM Fields
It is a glaring truth. No matter how broad the scientific research or how far academia have reached to date, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have been and remain a man’s world. Although there have been some changes in the last few decades, for the most part, women and minorities still face disparities (Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Personnel Management, 2016).
There are many negatives associated with women and minorities’ limited participation in STEM fields, such as repression of creativity, loss of true innovation (Del Giudice, 2014), lower productivity/profitability, and underperformance of corporations (Kaul, 2016). Because of this imbalance, the capability and brain power residing within our communities and nation are lost. Gonzalez and Kuenzi (2012) note that “growth in the student-age population (and therefore future labor supply) is in segments that have typically been underrepresented in STEM” (p. 23). Furthermore, a report by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, asserts that underrepresented groups “embody a vastly underused resource and a lost opportunity for meeting our nation’s technology needs” (as cited in Gonzalez & Kuenzi, 2012, p. 23). Increasing the participation of women and ethnic and racial minorities in STEM education and employment is, therefore, essential to improving America’s reputation as a STEM leader worldwide.
Sometimes girls do not believe they can do STEM-related jobs. Perhaps an educator, at some point in a young girl’s life, convinced her that she should take home economics or nursing courses instead of physics, rather than advising her that she can pursue fields of study not considered traditional for females. Maybe a girl was told by a family member that STEM classes are too hard. While many things may influence one’s decisions related to a career, the authors believe that it is essential to inspire young girls to meet the expected growth of STEM careers of 20-30 percent by 2018 and beyond.
In an effort to impact the gender gap locally and regionally, Columbia State Community College embarked on a project to engage middle school girls in a day-long event that emphasizes STEM careers and opportunities, to encourage participants to weigh and examine the possibilities. The resulting STEM GiRLS (Girls Really Love Science) workshops demonstrate to female students that there are opportunities within reach.
Another important reason behind these events is the growing awareness that STEM careers are the best opportunity a community has for lowering unemployment rates and encouraging economic success. There are two STEM jobs for every unemployed person compared to one non-STEM job for every four unemployed persons (Change the Equation, 2014). These statistics are not surprising when one considers that 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to U.S. citizens in 2013-2014 were in STEM fields. Graduates in STEM fields are even more of a challenge for community colleges, where completion rates are estimated at half of those for four-year institutions (NCES, 2017).
STEM education is vital to all student groups, but Columbia State identified women in STEM as the primary focus. Although women comprise almost half of the college population, approximately 35 percent of the STEM degrees awarded go to females (NCES, 2017). These statistics identify women as untapped resources for a potential STEM workforce. We believe community colleges can be the key to bridging girls from the K-12 setting into advanced STEM degrees.
The workshops—held in October 2013, April 2015, and October 2016—each attracted at least 300 girls from nine counties surrounding Columbia State’s main campus. Special efforts were made to reach out to rural areas, although urban communities were highly involved. Advertising on social media was effective in reaching potential attendees, as was interaction with public middle school teachers, principals, and superintendents.
Each event began with a special speaker providing motivational, informative talks and activities to get everyone into the spirit of the day. Featured workshops engaged students in a variety of interactive hands-on activities such as agricultural science, biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, math, physics, and entrepreneurship. More than 20 activities were offered, including self-sustaining ecosystem building, cow eyeball dissection, magnetic levitation, make-up production, and video game programming. Concurrent adult sessions were attended by 60-100 parents, teachers, and visitors. Logistics for how the girls cycled through the various workshops was challenging at first, but as the events continued, preferences and selective assignments improved the choice of activities. Surveys conducted at the end of every event indicated that participants felt the workshops were fun, energetic, and educational.
Planning for each event spanned ten months. Early actions involved forming a small planning team that used a comprehensive master planning document outlining important aspects of event preparation needed for successful execution. STEM faculty served as content experts and business office members helped maintain the operational budget of $10,000-$20,000. Key support staff members provided necessary organizational skills. Representatives from college’s Foundation and Development Office served as fundraising experts and played a key role in identifying sponsors. Communications assisted with event publicity and photography. Event volunteers consisted of about 100 individuals including students, faculty, and retired teachers. The volunteers, faculty, and staff expressed an increased optimism and pride knowing that they were helping young girls.
The faculty and staff of Columbia State believe that outreach is very important for our nine-county service area. We feel strongly about continuing our efforts to increase female participation and involvement in STEM-related areas of interest. The last STEM GiRLS workshop was conducted in October 2016. Plans are in early stages for STEM GiRLS 2018. These events are, in part, funded by minimal registration fees and dependent upon community sponsors and volunteer support. The STEM GiRLS programs would not be possible without the support of the Columbia State community and business partnerships.
Providing this type of event supports growing efforts to close the gender gap in STEM fields. The driving message to young girls should always be: Don’t give up on your STEM goals despite critics and naysayers.
For information about how to plan a similar effort at your institution, please contact Andrew G. Wright.
Click here to see photos from STEM GiRLS 2016.
Change the Equation. (2014, April 28). STEM help wanted: Demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics weathers the storm. Retrieved from http://changetheequation.org/stemdemand
Del Giudice, M. (2014, November 08). Why it's crucial to get more women into science. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141107-gender-studies-women-scientific-research-feminist/
Gonzalez, H. B., & J. J. Kuenzi, J. J. (2012). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education: A primer. Congressional Research Service R42642. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42642.pdf
Kaul, M. (2016, February 29). Why we need more women in STEM. Entrepreneur Media. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/271665
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2017, July). Indicator 24: STEM degrees. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_reg.asp
Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Personnel Management. (2016). Reducing the impact of bias in the STEM workforce: Strengthening excellence and innovation. Retrieved from https://www.si.edu/content/oeema/OSTP-OPM_Report.pdf
Dr. C. Glenn Hudson is former associate professor of Mathematics and Physics at Columbia State Community College. Penelope Kellman is secretary, Humanities and Social Sciences Division, at Columbia State Community College, Columbia Campus. Andrew G. Wright is Educational Services Coordinator and assistant professor of Mathematics at Columbia State Community College, Williamson Campus.
Opinions expressed in Member Spotlight are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.