As one whose life work is to encourage girls and women, especially those from underrepresented groups to embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to pursue careers in these areas, I must admit that I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, these pursuits can lead to economic independence, personal fulfillment and a better world. On the other hand, I know many will have a rude awakening when they leave our nurturing environment where sisterhood and mentorship are emphasized, and enter higher education where they are likely to be discouraged by gatekeeper classes and discriminatory professors and fellow students. More than one alumnae have shared those stories.
So reading about the Educators’ Equity STEM Academy gave me great hope. This NSF-supported initiative to help girls and underrepresented groups succeed in STEM studies addresses the psychological impact that subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination has on attrition. This initiative brings in the rich experience of the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity Education Foundation to make sure classroom environments and teacher attitudes and behavior enhance rather than hinder the learning experience and outcome for all. Infusing high school teachers and community college teachers with this training will have the effect of unclogging the STEM pipeline.
At Science Club for Girls , we work with the assumption that for most girls and those from marginalized groups, entering a STEM classroom or STEM field is equivalent to entering into a new cultural space. “Am I welcome? Do I belong? Are they expecting the same from me as everyone else? How do they expect me to behave?” Our job is to help them explore this space safely, and allow them to build an identity that encompasses their “place of origin” and this new territory. If all adults that girls encounter develop this awareness and are actively working to understand and address the stereotypes they hold personally and professionally, I will no longer be ambivalent about sending these young women to explore this exciting STEM frontier.
This blog entry was written in response to “Program aims to help girls, minorities succeed in math and science” — an article from the Baltimore Sun on January 9, 2012 that is accessible here .
Connie Chow is the executive director of Science Club for Girls , a MA-based nonprofit that increases confidence and literacy in STEM in girls from K-12 grades. Dr. Chow received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a member of the biology department at Simmons College. Dr. Chow is a women’s rights advocate and expert on international human rights. She is a member of the Back Bay Chorale.