Across the country, women make up just a small part of students studying STEM — or courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and that includes Salt Lake Community College. School educators plan to change that.
One way SLCC is moving forward is by hiring more female STEM educators, including Assistant Professor Aimee Birdsall. Birdsall, who has a master’s degree in structural engineering, teaches five engineering classes and said she has concern with the lack of women she sees in her classes.
“Each of my classes have about 20 students in them, so that’s at least 100 students I have right now, and I have five girls total,” said Birdsall, who noted she was usually the only female in her college engineering courses.
According to the United State Census, women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but only 27% of them have careers in STEM – a number that has gone up in recent years but is still nowhere close to being equal to male counterparts.
“I don’t think we know [all] the reasons for it,” said Craig Caldwell, dean of the School of Math, Science and Engineering. “I suspect the reasons are complicated and start long before students show up here on our campus.”
The gap, Caldwell said, may begin as early as junior high school, when girls are ushered into home economic classes and often too intimidated to join an all-boys mechanics class. Caldwell went on to theorize that years later, women may become torn between wanting to have and care for a family, and the demand a STEM education may require.
“Letting girls know there is potential to juggle it all is key,” said Birdsall. “These careers aren’t just a 9-to-5 desk job at the office. There is flexibility.”
SLCC is one of many colleges across the nation that recognize the gender gap in STEM studies and are working to implement ways to change it.
Tanasia Valdez, manager of a grant-funded program meant to support STEM students called TRIO STEM, specifically works with underrepresented groups in the sciences such as women.
“We consider [the program] a one-stop-shop,” said Valdez. “We have very specific types of advising. We offer helping students think ahead and design their future.”
The TRIO program takes between 100-200 students each year and supports them as they pursue STEM studies. In a recent report created by Valdez, the 2019-20 year saw a 75% degree attainment from the students who participated in TRIO STEM.
The support for women in STEM is growing in places of higher education, but women usually have their minds made up before they set foot on a college campus.
A playlist of TED talks featured “brilliant women in STEM” and introduced new role models to young girls. Exposing elementary aged girls to STEM by painting such careers in a positive light could plant the seed of a young female scientist or engineer.