The idea that boys are better than girls in science has persisted throughout history due, largely, to social constructs and opportunity throughout the ages.
Even now, explains Deb Hill, dean of Southern Utah University’s Beverley Taylor Sorenson College of Education and Human Development, “We have an inclination in our society to not celebrate smarts with girls.”
“Girls are told from a young age that it’s not cool to be smart, so they push away from the hard sciences when so many could go so far in those fields,” says Hill, backed by her own anecdotal experience as a longtime educator and a wealth of research into social constructs and self perception in education.
Assistant Professor of information systems within SUU’s College of Science and Engineering Shalini Kesar, who is actively working for change with IT colleagues across the nation, says the problem extends far beyond school-aged children.
“It doesn’t matter who we work for or our racial background, we all see the lack of women in the STEM fields as a concern.”
To say that Hill, Kesar and their colleagues are troubled that half the population is grossly underrepresented in the all-important fields of engineering, math, science and technology is an understatement. And faculty across SUU’s campus have set out to change perceptions by creating opportunities.
One of the most visible of these projects has come by way of a recent partnership between the University and North Elementary in its creation of the region’s first STEAM school. Simply by integrating the hard sciences with other, more palatable subjects — for example, teaching plate tectonics through dance or multiplication through song — school children come to better understand complicated scientific concepts and better retain the things they are learning. Opened in September 2012 and refining its curriculum to cross-reference science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM) across all subject matter, North Elementary’s shifted focus toward co-curricular instruction has engaged its students more broadly into the sciences and arts than ever before.
The community, in turn, is recognizing the great value in a new approach to shift perceptions. After just one year as a STEAM school, North Elementary has already doubled its enrollment and will welcome its largest group of kindergarten students in history this fall.
“We’re teaching them that learning is fun and manageable, no matter the complexity of the topic,” explains Jana Lunt, assistant professor of mathematics at SUU and advisor to the University’s math education students, when asked about the rationale behind integrated lesson plans in general.
“The hope, then,” explains Lunt, “is that later on in life these students are more comfortable and won’t be intimidated to take collegiate level math or sciences courses.”
North’s STEAM program isn’t the University’s only push to get young girls involved in science. Inspired by research that has proven that children decide as early as the third grade if they want to continue to learn about math, science or engineering, Kesar has put much effort of late into exposing young children —particularly girls — to positive experiences in the sciences.
“If the sciences are presented in a way to children that makes them feel insecure they’re going to continue to attribute science with fear. But, if we present the sciences in a way that is fun, girls will feel secure to continue to learn about those subjects, and that is what I am trying to do here,” Kesar explains.
Just one of Kesar’s many efforts has been the founding of a computer science club at North Elementary, the first of its kind in southern Utah. Here, students from first through the fifth grades are all welcome to stay after school to learn how to dissemble and assemble computers, design websites and complete basic computer programming.
Encouraged by the growing interest in the subject matter from many of the young female students in the after school program, Kesar said, “We must teach our girls now that they can do these things, that computers are not a boys only club.”
Along with the North Elementary Computer Club, Kesar and other SUU faculty have been working intensively with high school students in the Southern Utah Center for Computing, Engineering and Science Students, better known as the SUCCESS Academy, a partner school between the University and local school district that gives high school students a chance to begin college courses in the ninth grade with classes focused on the sciences.
In addition to being named as one of the top high schools in the state in 2012, the Academy’s most recent success story comes in the form of recent graduate Karen Miller, who was nationally recognized by NCWIT with the Award for Aspirations in Computing. Chosen from a pool of 1,800 female students across the country, Miller was the first student from the state of Utah to earn this award.
To help spread proven programming to engage young girls in the sciences beyond southern Utah, Kesar has recently presented her and her colleagues’ work to the Utah Women in Higher Education Network and the National Center for Women and Information Technologies (NCWIT).
Her work so impressed those within the industry, in fact, that after hearing Kesar’s presentation during the 2013 NCWIT conference, both Microsoft and Qualcomm invited the professor to join in additional training and discussions about how to retain and encourage young girls in the IT fields.
Kesar anticipates that by working with more companies and schools across the industry, she will be able to expand the resources and opportunities for girls in Iron County.
Meanwhile, across campus, SUU faculty continue to look for new ways to spread STEM’s cause. The University currently offers specialized science courses at the elementary and high school levels in schools across the region and is now working with local school districts to bring STEM courses to area middle schools.