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Steering girls toward STEM: Statistics and solutions

Wednesday - 8/28/2013, 9:14am  ET

One way to encourage girls' interest in math and science is through afterschool activities and camps. Here, Maxine Sculthorpe works on a painting in "Messy Science," one of the Emerald Coast Science Center's summer science campsin Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Students were learning about primary colors and gasses by filling film canisters with colored water and Alka-Seltzer tablets and letting them explode on art paper. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily News, Devon Ravine)

WASHINGTON - Sara Igielski fell in love with science when she took her first chemistry class in the 10th grade.

"From right then I just thought, ‘OK, engineering is what I want to do,'" says Igielski, who is now a junior at the University of Maryland, studying environmental and civil engineering.

But Igielski is in the minority, both at her school and at schools throughout the nation. That is because women are significantly less likely than men to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields for short.

Igielski estimates that the ratio of women to men is 1:7 in most of her engineering classes, with the exception of her civil and bio engineering classes, which she says "have significantly more girls."

"(The number of girls) is really small, but I think I have an advantage that way, so I don't mind it," says Igielski, who is 20 years old.

Other schools are seeing similar ratios in STEM enrollment, as well.

Of the 25,653 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the fall 2012 semester at the George Washington University, 4,060 studied STEM fields and 1,490 of those STEM students were women, the school tells WTOP.

Additionally, a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows that women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but in 2009 there were only 2.5 million college-educated working women with STEM degrees, compared to 6.7 million men.

This disproportionate number of women in STEM fields is troubling to some industry leaders, including electrical engineer Karen Purcell. One reason for her worry is a recent statistic from The Brookings Institution, which says 20 percent of U.S. jobs require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.

So why are women so underrepresented in math and science fields?

Purcell, who is also the author of "Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," says not enough is being done at an early age to encourage young girls to sustain an interest in math and science.

"I think there's an extreme lack of exposure for young women, so that they don't even realize opportunities that exist for them in the STEM fields," says Purcell, founder, owner and president of PK Electrical. "It seems as though boys are more pushed toward the science and math fields, and girls not so much … It's like an unintentional bias that just exists out there that this is the way it's always been, and there's just no reason that it should be this way."

To reverse this trend, Purcell says parents, teachers, guidance counselors and mentors should expose young girls to math and science at an early age and foster their interests in these fields. This is a strategy the Obama administration embraces, as well, through one of its goals in the Educate to Innovate initiative, launched in November 2009.

According to Purcell, one way to do this is through afterschool activities and camps. She suggests taking trips to science museums and swapping out traditional toys and games.

"Even as young children, girls are given Barbie dolls to play with and boys are given Erector sets … I think when you participate in (math and science) activities and you see how fun they can be ... that keeps their interest going," says Purcell, who has worked in engineering for 24 years.

Another way to encourage girls and young women to work in a STEM field is by showing them the variety of career possibilities in math and science, Purcell says.

This approach is what attracted University of Maryland student Igielski to engineering. As a junior in high school, the Pleasantville, N.Y., native attended a presentation from an engineer who participated in Engineers without Borders.

"I saw what they do in EWB and it was all helping people. It was all about finding solutions to problems and helping people that don't have the resources to do it on their own," Igielski says.

Now, she is working on a project that examines best practices for stormwater runoff in and around the Chesapeake Bay. When she finishes her undergraduate degree in 2015, she says she hopes to continue with her education and eventually build water systems for developing countries.

"When a young girl sees a woman in a position that one day they would like to be in, it becomes more of a reality to them and they say, ‘Hey, you know, I can do that. I like science, I like math. There's no reason why I can't do that,'" Purcell says.

The financial payoff and job security for pursuing STEM careers are two factors that are hard to ignore.

In 2009, women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non- STEM careers. These women also saw less of a wage gap with their male counterparts, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports.

Purcell says advances in technology and science will only add to the number of jobs available in STEM fields.

"It's interesting as we went through this recession that the STEM fields … Even though the unemployment rate was very high, nationwide, there was still a huge demand for engineers, scientists, technologists, anything in STEM," Purcell says.

"If we're going to continue to grow as a nation, STEM fields are really what it's going to take … And those jobs are going to be there for a long time."

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