Advancing STEM Opportunities for Southern Utah Girls

Published: March 19, 2015 | Author: Bailey Bowthorpe | Read Time: 3 minutes

Across the country girls are being bombarded by what they should be interested in and told it’s not cool to play with globes and computers, consequently girls lose confidence in their science and math abilities and are statistically less likely to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees later on. Research reported by The Verizon Foundation, an advocate for increasing the amount of women in STEM, states that a mere 14 percent of teenage girls want to become a scientist.

These unfortunate statistics have motivated Shalini Kesar, Southern Utah University associate professor of computer science and information systems, to empower kindergarten through 12th grade girls interested in STEM fields to pursue their math and science classes and apply what they have learned in their respective communities. 

“When I visit these schools, I realize it isn’t just about computing, but more about enhancing their awareness of higher education and opening the doors of possibility in the field of science and technology,” she said. “As an educator, my goal is to build a connection with these girls and help them realize how important education is in the 21st century, especially if they can learn and apply elements of computing.” 

After a long day of teaching SUU computer science students and leading an elementary school computing club in SUU’s STEM partnership school, North Elementary, Kesar spends her evenings helping young women in the high schools of rural southern Utah to encourage them to apply for the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing award.

According to the NCWIT website, the award honors young women who are active and interested in computing and technology and encourages them to pursue their passions.

In 2014 the first NCWIT Southern Utah Aspirations Event was hosted on SUU's campus where there were 39 high school applicants and 11 winners from eight counties in the southern Utah region. This year, her numbers have nearly doubled, with 75 young women from 10 southern Utah counties applying for the award. After a rigorous national blind review process, 25 regional winners have been chosen.

Kesar’s personalized touch in her outreach efforts has helped raise visibility for possibilities in science and technology among girls in rural southern Utah. Of the 10 high school graduates from the 2014 competition, eight are now continuing their education at SUU.

Karen Miller, now an SUU student, received a national NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award in 2013. At the age of 7, Miller was inspired by her dad’s interest in computers and film and began learning basic computer coding. “Technology is so interesting to me because it has evolved so drastically over time,” she said. “Receiving the award allowed me to network and gain guidance from STEM professionals that will help me in my future career.”

Kesar said it has been validating to see the success of this program grow since its inception only two years ago. 

“The success of the program tells me there is a need to show high school students and administrators in these rural areas that opportunities like this exist,” she said. 

Along with that idea, Kesar encourages educators to create specific curriculum in computing and technology to ensure their students have positive experiences in the sciences, especially young girls.

Every spring, award applicants and their family are invited to SUU’s campus for a special event honoring their achievement in technology and computing. The event allows the young women to receive awards and interact with SUU professors, students in the College of Science and Engineering along with administrators from across campus. 

Kesar’s advice to girls is simple: think about education with an element of science or technology. “There is no denying the existence of a gender gap in STEM jobs. You have an incredible opportunity to make that change--so take advantage of it.”

The second annual southern Utah NCWIT Aspirations Award event will take place on Saturday, March 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Southern Utah University.

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