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2014 November 10 - 09:43 am

Bridging The STEM Divide

Colleges Strive To Enlist, Support Women in STEM fields


When Fortune magazine recently published its list of the most powerful women in American business in 2014, it should have heartened those who bemoan the dearth of women studying the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

It used to be that the top ranks of Fortune’s most-powerful-women list were held by women in creative fields, such as advertising, media and publishing. Think Oprah Winfrey. Their educational backgrounds were in the liberal arts and humanities.

This year was different. Almost all of the women on the 2014 list — such as Mary Barra, president of General Motors; Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo; and Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer of IBM — studied one of the hard sciences in college.

On the one hand, the fact that some of the country’s industrial and technological giants are headed by women is an encouraging sign for a nation that is producing far too few female graduates in the STEM fields. Women looking for a STEM role model need only look at the list.

But on the other, the list obscures a more sobering reality: there remains a paucity of women studying the STEM fields even at a time when well-paying STEM jobs are growing fast.

The proof is in the numbers. Only one in seven engineers in the country is female. Of the roughly 500,000 associate degrees earned by women at community colleges each year, only about 5 percent are in the STEM fields. At many community colleges, women represent less than 20 percent of STEM enrollments, even as they make up well over 50 percent of overall enrollment. Nationally, women represent about one-half of the workforce but only 24 percent of the workers in the STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Policymakers say that the country must grow its science and technical workforce  to remain competitive in the global economy, and that underrepresented women and minorities must be part of the formula. Increasingly, community colleges are being called upon to put female and minority students on the path to STEM degrees.

It’s a difficult problem. Gender segregation begins long before students arrive on a college campus and is exacerbated once they get there. At community colleges, women earn the majority of certificates and associate degrees in culinary services, education and health care. But men dominate STEM-related fields, making up three-quarters on sub-baccalaureate students in computer and information services and engineering.

With support from the National Science Foundation, community colleges are striving to cultivate female talent in the STEM fields. In 2012, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (N.C.) received a $200,000, three-year NSF grant for a project to recruit and retain female students into the STEM fields, and results so far have been promising.

The grant aims to increase the number of women by 45 percent in informationsystems security, computer engineering, computer information, electronics engineering, mechanical engineering, networking and sustainability.

During the 2010-11 school year, women made up only 12 percent of the students in those technology programs at A-B Tech, while they made up about 57 percent of the college’s total students This fall, women make up 19 percent of A-B Tech students in the targeted technology fields. In 2011, 39 women were enrolled in the college’s STEM programs. Today, the number is 82, said Pamela Silvers, business computer technologies chair and the grant’s principal investigator.

“There is a lot of opportunity in these fields,” she said. “There are 23 Fortune 500 companies in this area. But women don’t see themselves in the technology fields. People tend to think of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Women don’t have the role models.”

Research indicates that women typically aren’t attracted to the science, technology, engineering or math fields because they are traditionally male professions, Silvers said. Few women role models also play a role in the gender imbalance.

A report released last year by the American Association of University women advised community colleges to proactively address these and other issues.

“Gender stereotypes and a lack of information and support are some of the barriers to women’s participation in STEM and other nontraditional fields in community colleges,” the report said. “These challenges are not insurmountable, but institutions must actively intervene to help close the gender gap in these fields. Women are actually more likely than men to attend community college at some point on their way to earning a bachelor’s degree in STEM, so increasing women’s participation in STEM at community colleges could also help address the gender gap in STEM among bachelor’s degree recipients.”

A-B Tech launched a multi-faceted effort to get more women enrolled in the STEM fields. Silvers said the college took a hard look at its STEM marketing material as part of its female recruitment effort. Before that recruitment effort started, nary a women could be found in promotional material.

“We made sure that the pictures included women,” said Silvers. The college started a marketing campaign with the theme “Picture Yourself in Technology.”

Female student ambassadors visited high-school career fairs, held education expos to inform high-school counselors and teachers about the programs and attended events to let non-traditional students know of the opportunities in STEM careers. Women enrolled in the targeted programs automatically become members of a Women in Technology group, which connects females through face-to-face meetings and social media. The group provides a support system and a sense of community, she said.

The notion that a community of learners can help women thrive in the STEM fields is at the center of the Women in STEM (WiSTEM) Learning Community at Wake Technical Community College. As part of the learning community, women students enroll in women-only courses and collaborate with those who share their interests and drive to succeed. They learn study skills designed with their needs and strengths in mind. They have opportunities to form study groups, interact with faculty and learn from mentors.

“We spent a lot of time brainstorming about recruiting, how to connect with individuals, how to connect with public schools,” said Cheryl L. Keeton, the college’s dean of mathematics and sciences. “We thought about advertising to students.”

Planners then focused on how to help the students succeed once they arrived on campus.

“We are kind of a drive-through institution,” Keeton said. “People don’t stay. They drive in, take a few courses and move on. We wanted to create a sense of community.”

So the college created a series of STEM Centers where students can gather to share their experiences. The centers offer an environment where students can work together, share ideas, and support each other in their STEM studies. The centers have wireless Internet access and space for study groups. Students get the chance to interact with faculty members and other professionals as well as peers. They can find tutoring assistance, impromptu advising, and insights into career options.

“It also gives us a focal point to spread information,” Keeton said. “Before that, we did not have a focal point outside of the Facebook page.”

Last year, the college began its WiSTEM program. It is open to women enrolled in the preengineering and the associate in science programs. This fall, 105 students are enrolled in four introductory courses: two precalculus courses and two general biology course. Each courses is offered at the college’s Main and Northern Wake campuses.

“It was another way to build community,” Keeton said. “We focus on the learning styles of women. They want to know how their studies will affect and improve the world.”

Jackie Swanik, associate head of the college’s natural sciences department and works at the college’s Northern Wake Campus. She also heads the WiSTEM program. She said the women-only courses she teaches increases class participation and collaboration.

“You can see the women gravitating toward one another,” she said. “Older students and younger students are working together.”

Part of Swanik’s job involves showing students the real-world applications of their studies. Take a geology degree, for example.

“It doesn’t seem like looking at rocks has any real benefit,” Swanik said. “But we have a lot of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) going on in North Carolina.

People with these degrees can make a difference. If we can show them these different fields and career paths, they can make that connection.”

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