STEMulating Womenâ€™s Interest in the STEM Field
By Melanie Dougherty
Academic Advisor at American Public University
Once they enroll in college, approximately 29 percent of all male freshmen plan to major in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field, and only 15 percent of female freshmen plan to major in the same field. At the end of their four-year program, only 20 percent of women earn a bachelor’s degree in physics, engineering, or computer science (Hill, Corbett, & St. Rose, 2010).
At APU, we offer a variety of STEM programs, including environmental science, information technology, mathematics, natural sciences, and electrical engineering. These programs interest both men and women alike.
We take into consideration that women are underrepresented in the STEM field and have explored different avenues to support women and keep women interested in STEM. What are we doing to help stemulate women’s interest in the STEM field? We have two major areas of accomplishment: student involvement and role models.
Encouraging Student Involvement Leads to wSTEM Founding
At APU, we encourage student involvement. We created Women in STEM, also known as wSTEM, a student organization that allows community involvement for female and male STEM students.
This organization promotes a female presence in the STEM fields and helps students to build bridges among peers, faculty members, and mentors in STEM fields. There is no membership fee. wSTEM has reached silver standing, which means that it demonstrates a high level of chapter involvement. Standings are ranked at university level.
Francesca Catalano, the faculty director of the science and space studies programs, created wSTEM with three missions:
- Support young girls
- Support students by providing mentor relationships
- Sustain women who achieve advanced degrees
wSTEM also works to identify the needs of men and women in the STEM field to share equal opportunity among students.
Recent wSTEM Activities
wSTEM also participated in eCYBERMISSION in March. eCYBERMISSION is a web-based competition with the goal of inspiring and improving student performance in STEM. Established in 2002, this competition helps students to apply STEM principles to their communities (eCYBERMISSION Accept the Challenge, 2013). wSTEM is making great progress in taking a leadership role in providing support and opportunity to APUS students.
STEM Role Models Inspire Students
“Role models are highly important for us psychologically, helping to guide us through life during our development, to make important decisions that affect the outcome of our lives, and to help us find happiness in later life.” (Thomas, paragraph 1, 2016).
At APU, we like to highlight our strong role models who work in the field. We share how they work to encourage women and men alike to bury the gender gap and advance in innovative STEM majors.
Who are some of our female role models at APUS? Our faculty directors, program directors, faculty, and advising members are all exemplary role models.
- Irena Kageorgis, our program director for information technology, states, “I chose STEM because I found it very logical and intuitive for me since I was five. I often found myself being the only female in classrooms of forty or more or in whole programs altogether. I found it challenging, interesting, and logical!”
- Jacqueline Gutierrez, another faculty director, says, “I recall being in the third grade when I realized I wanted to work with computers. My third grade teacher asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I said, “I want to be a computer scientist.”
The general disconnect for young girls happens in grade five. Two of our APUS role models had an interest in STEM at an early age, and neither one lost interest in the field. They remained inspired by role models and were driven by the field’s innovation.
- Kelly Reiss, our program director for environmental science, became interested in the STEM field while in grade school. Her math teacher from grades three through five is one of her most memorable teachers. She gained interest in the environmental science field during college. She says, “I did stumble into my field…well, slosh into it, as a wetlands ecologist. I had a lab course on forest ecology, walked into a flooded forested wetland, and fell in love.”
She talks about her role models and the third mission of the wSTEM organization, which is to help sustain women who have achieved advanced degrees. Kelly says, “I worked under another graduate student who graduated several years ahead of me. She helped teach me the ‘ropes.’ She gave me advice and confidence in field work, project planning, writing, and teaching. She handed off an environmental biology lab course to me when she graduated.” While Kelly “sloshed” into the STEM field, she followed her role models and advanced her career into becoming a program director at APU.
- Francesca Catalano created wSTEM and leads every project and outreach that the organization does. Her goal is to find solutions for women to continue in STEM fields and to bring more men into the conversations. Francesca works closely with her peers, STEM dean Dan Benjamin, and STEM assistant dean Daniel Welsch to provide necessary support and guidance to our students and to help sustain women in the STEM fields.
It’s important to examine what is needed for female students to feel supported and when those students choose a career. We have already taken two necessary steps for women to feel supported in a STEM field: emphasizing female role models to keep female STEM students inspired and working hard to foster a strong sense of community among STEM students and faculty. We intend to provide practical solutions for women in STEM fields.
eCYBERMISSION Accept the Challenge. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.ecybermission.com/.
Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics. (1st ed., pp. 2-28). Washington, DC: AAUW. – See more at: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Working-with-Women-to-STEMulate-Interest.aspx#sthash.6RMGwOJM.dpuf
Thomas, Mark. (2016). The importance of role models. Self Improvement Motivation. Retrieved from http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/13288/1/The-Importance-of-Role-Models.html
About the Author
Melanie Dougherty has worked as an academic advisor for five years and worked in grade schools for two years prior to transitioning to higher education. She began advising for the public service and health fields and transitioned to the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. She is a chapter advisor for the IEEE organization at APU and enjoys helping students meet their academic goals.