When the Siemens Foundation and Discover Education began holding a competition in math, science, and technology in 1999 the goal was to increase access to higher education for young students who are gifted in STEM by offering winners scholarships of up to $100,000. That goal is still the same, but seventeen years later organizers have changed the way they encourage young girls to compete and consider careers that could lead to the cure for cancer or identify tomorrow's coolest technology. So, what does it take to involve a more diverse pool of participants...in other words...find a way to get girls to compete?
“For the last several years, 48 percent of our competitors are young women,” said David Etzeiler, CEO of the foundation.
“One of the things that we really attribute some of the success in that near parody, I should say, really comes from the fact that we run this competition not only as an individual competition but as a team competition as well,’ he said. “What we’ve seen since inception is that young women very frequently get involved in a more collaborative style, for that team competition. Then they may stay as a team, they may venture off into the individual competition as well. So that’s one of the things that we have really taken note of over the years in terms of what we perceive as pretty good success, and encouraging and celebrating young women in science.”.
The teenage competitors are required to submit a project, make an oral presentation, create a poster display, cite references, and then go through a question and answer session. Regional competitions happen in November. And, says Etzeiler, if the fact that last year's winner of the competition was a girl is any indication of how successful the reworking of the program has been, then the foundation expects to see more young girls in December participating in national finals.
“The folks that we have at these competitions are so impressive and well-rounded,” he said. “They are folks participating in sports, in music, in drama, in a whole host of other activities.”
Their ability to engage in diverse interests and manage multiple activities draws more and more young women into science and math according to Etzeiler who says young women enjoy meeting with and working alongside their peers.
“That’s certainly one of the things that we’ve noticed in terms of the trends,” he said. “The other trend of course, is that while we have a ways to go in the country we are making some strides forward in terms of seeing and celebrating women in science, and math, and medicine.”
During a recent competition the foundation invited Aprille Ericsson-Jackson to address competitors. An American aerospace engineer born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Ericsson-Jackson talked in great length to the group about her experience at NASA and serving other people.
“The very act of having folks who look like us, whether we are men or women, traditionally underserved, is certainly a big part of being able to imagine ourselves in the work that they are doing,” said Etzeiler.
Dr. Susan Madsen has spent a good portion of her career as a researcher at Utah Valley University studying ways to encourage girls to pursue a higher education degree and consider careers that have traditionally been given to their male counterparts.
“Most scientists that they see through the years are men, so they can’t even identify or look at themselves and see that as a possibility,” said Madsen.
The way we are raised and other experiences in our lives create and result in an unconscious bias. Madsen says we don’t consciously understand why we are doing this and make assumptions the can lead to a career bias.
“So the unconscious bias is such interesting research,” she said. “As a young woman, if you don’t really consider all the possibilities for majors in college, if you only consider nursing or social work or things that you’ve seen people do, then I would argue that you don’t really have a choice.”
It is great news for girls, says Madsen, when they can look to role models like Maria Elena Gremmett. She was one of the winners of the 2015 Siemens math, science, and technology competition. Her environmental research titled Adsorption of Sulfamethazine from Environmentally Relevant Aqueous Matrices onto Hypercrosslinked Adsorbent MN250, resulted in top awards for the young scientist.
“Some of the research, you and I have talked about this before, is the powerfulness of other people,” said Madsen. “Powerfulness of a neighbor who might suggest some things, or notice ‘Hey you look like you’re good at science! You’re out there building a rocket’ and doing these things,” she said.
Her research of religious leaders in Utah found a strong connection between youth leaders and their ability to influence young people about career and other choices.
“One sample was LDS, so Mormons,” she said. “If a young woman’s leader actually suggested things, they were very open to those. I do need to say that the parents are the strongest influence in the research I’ve done. But neighbors, employers, you know, even if you’re a high school student, an employer, church members, an aunt, all of those and more could be powerful influences in just suggesting, suggesting things to explore.”
Initially, it wasn't the intent of Mechanical Engineer Christine McKinley to take to the road as a role model for young girls. A self-described physics nut from San Francisco, McKinley travels the country using her talents as a guitar playing and vocals performing rock star with the Portland based band Dirty Martini. She has written books including Physics for Rock Stars and received awards for her musical about atoms and Catholicism. Her push to promote STEM careers to girls took her to Logan, Utah as a presenter during the Smart-Girls conference for girls ages 13-18. She says girls at that age are prime for the remind that a career in science is an option.
Mckinley spent most of younger school days in Alaska where she enjoyed learning about nature and the workings of the scientific world. That changed as she became a teenager.
“I lost interest,” said McKinley. “For me it happened in seventh grade. I dropped out of the gifted program, I started, you know, just not trying at all in school, because I wanted to be ‘cool’, and also because I was smart enough to look ahead and realize that the world of a ‘smart woman’, an educated woman, didn’t look as glamorous as, say, a pretty woman.”
Then McKinley turned to media in the form of television programs that began portraying strong women of science who dressed as superheros or had bionic abilities.
“I’ve tried to get out as much as I can and speak to universities and high schools and let them know that if you’re looking for freedom and glamour and never to be bored and be around other smart people and to make your own money, then engineering really is for you,” she said.
Through her music McKinley explains that women like her, who are happy and independent, start out as young women who learn to use the scientific method, momentum, and simple math to help them think through personal decisions.
“Mighty Isis, she was a science teacher and archaeologist when she hit paved earth” she sings. “The bionic woman worked for the office of scientific intelligence. They were geeks and late-bloomers, just like us. And then they saved the world, just like you will, but in real life.”
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.