Cheetos frozen in liquid nitrogen. The static electricity machine. Skulls to measure, and beakers bubbling over with dry ice.
It was girls gone wild May 21 at the Powerhouse Science Center – not in the party way but in the “having a blast building things and seeing how experiments work” way. The event, for girls only, was designed by the center’s staff, in collaboration with Girl Scouts, to help girls gain a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM disciplines. STEM careers tend to pay about 33 percent more than careers in other fields with similar education levels, but they are areas where women are severely underrepresented.
The Women’s Foundation, which is focusing on STEM education as one of its main thrusts to give women more career options, awarded $75,000 in grants around the state this year to innovative programs designed to bring more girls to a passion for STEM. One of the grants was used for the Powerhouse Science Center’s evening.
“We don’t have a huge budget for this,” said Louise Atkinson, president of the foundation, “but it was doubled from last year. We’ve always been committed to STEM, but when we released a (request for proposal), we had a huge amount of responses, and we saw the need.”
The Powerhouse evening was designed around a group of female role models, ranging from doctors and nurses to architects and foresters. In addition to creating the experiments to show what they do, the women shared stories from their professions, talked about how they had gotten started and gave examples of the cool things they get to do in their jobs.
They also gave advice for right now.
“Last week, we did rockets here,” said Jen Lokey, STEM educator and mad scientist at the center, “and I saw the girls hang back while the boys got right in there. I often see girls take a back seat because they’re afraid to fail, and science is about failing many, many times.”
The importance of math and paying attention throughout school was stressed by all of them.
“We launched satellites in the fall, and I had problems with my circuit,” said Katie Dudley, a Durango High School graduate and aerospace engineering student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “If I’d paid more attention in elementary school, it would have saved me a lot of time. You can do anything the guys can do – it’s not a guy thing or a girl thing.”
By the numbers
Statistics from the 2012 ACT Profile Reports show there is still quite bit of work to be done, because less than half of both boys and girls leaving high school have the skills and knowledge to meet college readiness standards in math and science. College readiness means a 50 percent chance of earning a “B” or higher or a 75 percent chance of earning a “C” or higher.
Boys in Colorado came in at 44 percent in math, while girls were at 38 percent; and boys were at 34 percent in science, while girls were at 28 percent of college readiness standards.
It’s still too soon to tell how District 9-R is doing, said Julie Snider-Popp, spokeswoman for the district, because the students who are now being exposed to more math and science in elementary school haven’t made it to Durango High School and the ACT tests yet. Students at Park Elementary are getting an extra dose of technology, she said, and at Riverview Elementary, students leave their regular classrooms and go to a classroom and teacher dedicated only to science.
“Our partners, Durango Nature Studies, the Powerhouse (Science Center), the Durango Public Library, all bring in great programs to our schools,” she said. “But transportation is a great barrier to access to after-school programs. Sometimes students just can’t participate because they need to get home on the bus.”
Sabine Furtauer, who has been a math teacher for 20 years, is now the teacher/leader of the ninth and 10th grade Da Vinci Small Learning Community, which focuses on “creativity and questioning,” a combination of arts and engineering problem-solving. Among the core classes required for the students in the learning community are a Lego robotics rotation and working on tablets to create applications and digital arts.
“A shift has changed over time,” Furtauer said about seeing more young women in her classes, “but it’s still not where we want it to be. When we first started Da Vinci, we had a good focus on arts and entertainment, but now we’re drawing more kids with the STEM piece.”
“One of the best ways to get more girls in the STEM courses is to not discourage them,” said Kim Hannula, an associate geosciences professor and assistant dean of arts and sciences at Fort Lewis College.
Hannula is administering a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to increase participation in math and science for underserved populations, including women.
“The number of women in math and the sciences just keeps going down and down and down, from middle school to high school, college to grad school,” she said. “Why do women leave? It’s not because they’re not good at math.”
The ability to perform in environments where women are a minority is key to success in the STEM fields, women interviewed for this story said repeatedly.
“We try to keep it from being an old boys club,” Hannula said, “There are things we have to tell the boys, behaviors that aren’t acceptable, like don’t harass girls.”
Heather Stetzel, 40, is a newly tenured biology professor at Fort Lewis College. She didn’t have a single female science professor during her undergraduate career at Duke University. She takes her position as role model seriously.
“I think it’s important for them to see I have kids,” she said. “Most women want children, and if they only see women who prioritized a career over children, it will make them think they can’t do both.”
Recent graduate stories
Math major Julia Nass, who graduated from Durango High School in 2011, will start her senior year at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in the fall.
“I do a lot of tutoring,” she said, “and I tell people, ‘Yes, you can do math.’ They probably had a horrible math teacher or couldn’t learn the way it was taught. One bad math experience, even in elementary school, can ruin math for life for some people.”
Gabriele Razma, a member of the DHS Class of 2014, is heading to the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. The school is ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report for undergraduate engineering degrees.
“I’m not the only one who enjoys doing a calculus worksheet over reading a chapter of Heart of Darkness,” she wrote in her senior editorial as the copy editor for El Diablo, the DHS newspaper. “Many other students also prefer using a calculator to Post-It notes, but the difference is that I am female, and I am stereotypically supposed to be more artistic and attracted to English. I beg to differ.”
Razma knows she will be at a school where she will be in the minority, because only 20.7 percent of the institute’s student body is female.
“I have a message for all the women out there who would rather fill their schedule with extra science and math classes than have to sit through required English and history courses,” she wrote. “Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of working primarily with men. Stand your ground and stay confident that you are just as capable, if not more capable, than they are.”