Honoring Girls in STEM: Breaking Barriers

Published: March 22, 2018 | Author: Kenzie Lundberg | Read Time: 3 minutes

women in stem technologyAccording to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 57 percent of college undergraduates are women, yet only 18 percent choose STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for a career. Despite this national lack of female participation in computing and technology, southern Utah is showing initiative on this front.

Southern Utah University is partnering with the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) to reverse the trend in rural areas by sponsoring a competition for girls who are active and interested in computing and technology. The culmination of the competition will be an award ceremony held March 24, 2018, at SUU.

Dr. Shalini Kesar, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Southern Utah University, recently worked with Microsoft researching why STEM classes and careers still lack girls.

“The stubborn gender disparity in STEM fields has sparked important debates on the underlying reasons,” said Kesar. “Some attribute the gender disparity to social and infrastructural factors, lack of mentors and role models, and lack of awareness about what these fields offer in terms of educational and career opportunities. Others point to studies that indicate traditional mindsets of computing as ‘boring’ and ‘only for boys.’”

Kesar has been spearheading the Southern Utah Aspirations for high school girls across 14 counties in Utah and Nevada. In the last five years, more than 400 high schools have applied to the free online competition.

“This program gives these girls an aptitude in computing and ambition to continue in this field,” says Kesar. “Our goal is to build awareness about the STEM and computing fields and to give participants confidence in the skills they acquire.”

This year, with the support of parents and educators, 98 girls competed from high schools throughout southern Utah and Nevada. The competition is a platform for aspiring young women to showcase unique software coding, web design, and information technology skills.

Beyond the Aspirations program, girls are now attending SUU and sharing their passion. They are volunteering their time for Aspirations as well as advocating the importance of increasing participation of women in computing.

From a rural Delta, Utah, Nikki Wood is now on her way to completing a degree in Computer Science at SUU

"Growing up, I was very indecisive about what degree I wanted,” said Wood. “I've always loved working with computers and being able to communicate and create with technology, but I had never honestly considered doing so for the rest of my life. I grew up in a very small town, where technology was not only very unpopular, but even discouraged when I showed interest in it.”

A three time Aspirations regional winner, Wood credits the Aspirations program for her understanding of the opportunities she could have as a women in this field. “When I found out about the Aspirations program I was 15, it opened my eyes to the world of technology and all the opportunities it could give me. I had finally found the role models I so desperately needed and a community that made me feel that I belonged and would succeed. The Aspirations program helped me realize that programming wasn't ‘just for men’-- something I didn't even know I had convinced myself until that moment."

Accessibility and awareness are the barriers girls face, according to Kesar. To overcome these obstacles participating students receive mentoring by high school teachers to help encourage and improve the skills they now possess. Kesar stresses the importance of the educators , saying that they are the pillar of this program. “They help motivate their students, empower them, and advocate for young women in these fields.”

The Southern Utah Aspirations in Computing awards ceremony will be held Saturday, March 24, in the Great Hall of the Hunter Conference Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The young aspiring women along with parents, high school educators & SUU community will participate.

For more information: https://www.aspirations.org/

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