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Calling Women to STEM Fields

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women-in-STEM2By Francesca Catalano
Faculty Director, School of Science, Math, Technology, and Engineering, American Public University

The number of jobs that require skills in science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM fields—continues to grow. However, the number of women and people of color within these fields continue to be disproportionately low.  In 2011, women comprised approximately half of the total workforce across all jobs but only represented a quarter of positions within STEM fields. In that same year, according to a US Census report, the STEM workforce consisted of 6 percent African Americans and 3 percent Hispanics, regardless of gender.

Understanding and addressing the complex reasons behind why students in general (and women and minorities in particular) are not entering these fields require multiple, concurrent efforts within all stages of education from grade school to grad school and beyond.

We live in an era where fluency in technology is required and relied upon in unprecedented levels.  How many contact numbers in your smartphone have you memorized? When is the last time you unfolded a paper map, rather than use a GPS device? How can physicians effectively treat us these days without complex instruments, preventative measures like vaccines and genetic profiling and sophisticated drugs developed over years of research and development?

A recent report stated that jobs in the United States, in STEM fields, (science, technology, engineering and math) powered economic growth; in 2011, 20 percent of all jobs required a comprehensive knowledge base in one of the STEM disciplines.  At the same time, fewer people are entering STEM related professions.  This is a critical disconnect that will have a rippling impact over time.

A recent MINT Report (mathematics, informatics, natural science and technology) indicated that, in 2011, there was a shortage of professionals within these fields in Germany and that shortfall is increasing. The Obama administration has identified the discrepancy and has initiated several programs designed to attract underrepresented populations to STEM fields and then retain them within the field once they have been trained.

Agencies like NASA, private sector groups like the Girls Scouts of America and Sally Ride Science, along with grassroots efforts like “@girlswhocode” have all taken up the challenge to inspire and educate young girls and university-aged women about available career opportunities.  Relationship building groups like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) work to develop connections and support between faculty members to help sustain these women and grow mentoring relationships.

As a member of the STEM community, American Public University System (APUS) recognizes our responsibility to increase efforts towards greater science literacy and STEM appreciation for all students to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue STEM fields and to sustain their interest in the workplace. The School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math has introduced an initiative called wSTEM to promote female participation within all STEM fields.

This multi-tiered effort will encourage young girls to enroll in STEM courses, support and mentor university students as they study STEM disciplines, and develop relationships between established practitioners and faculty members within these fields.  This will be accomplished in part through social media, a seminar series, blogs, interviews, science outreach, and volunteer and service opportunities within the school and greater community.

The combined effort of all these groups (and more) is needed to inspire students and to inform them of the thrill of discovery and the endless possibilities that can be found in STEM fields.  After all, according to a recent article, your smartphone will be smarter than you by 2017.

About the Author

Francesca Catalano received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a medical technology degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1992 and 1993 respectively. She was awarded her Ph.D. in molecular biology with an emphasis in microbial genetics from Loyola University Chicago. She then matriculated at DePaul College of Law and she received a J.D. in 2004. She is a member of AAAS and ASM, and is board certified as a Medical Technologist by ASCP. For more information on the wSTEM project contact her at wSTEM@apus.edu

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