Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields: STEM Expo for Girls

Rhode Island College Impact

Workshop participants at the STEM Expo at Rhode Island College. (Photo credit: Tech Collective.)

Researchers say more women than men attend college and more women earn advanced degrees, yet only 20 percent of women choose a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM fields).

To close the gender gap by encouraging more females to pursue STEM occupations, the Tech Collective organized the Middle Girls’ Career Expo, hosted by the RI STEM Center at Rhode Island College.

Now in its second year, the expo involved 90 middle school girls from Sophia Academy, the Calcutt Middle School and TIMES2 Academy.

The girls engaged in hands-on workshops, led by nine professional women in STEM fields who represented such agencies as the U.S. Navy, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, as well as PBS Catch the Science Bug.

At nine in the morning, the girls gathered in Alger Hall, where welcoming remarks were given by Mary Sullivan, director of the RI STEM Center and RIC professor of mathematics and computer science; JoAnn Johnson, manager of Youth and Education Programs for Tech Collective; and Ron Pitt, RIC vice president for academic affairs.

Pitt, the only male at the all-female expo, once taught engineering before becoming a college administrator. He encouraged the girls to pursue careers in engineering.

“Engineers use math and science to solve society’s problems,” he told them. “They work to develop systems that protect the quality of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. They try to reduce the amount of energy that we use to heat our homes and to drive our automobiles. They design software that allows us to use our cell phones and the Internet. When you go to a hospital, all the medical devices that doctors and nurses use to treat patients are designed by engineers. But we don’t have enough of them. You can change that.”

Rallied by Pitt, the students set off to engage in workshops at various sites on campus. They learned what DNA looks like. They designed computer landscapes. They solved scientific mysteries. And they made earrings out of electrical fuses, using soldering irons and safety glasses. Industry professionals leading the workshops shared their career experiences, as well as their enthusiasm for their jobs.

By noon, the girls returned to Alger Hall for lunch and received a surprise visit from the busiest female on campus, RIC President Nancy Carriuolo.

Later, they watched a video that debunked the idea that girls aren’t hardwired to do STEM subjects. Girls actually score higher than boys on IQ tests, yet a girl’s self-confidence in her ability to perform well at math and science drops from 72 percent in sixth grade to 55 percent in 10th grade, say researchers.

Unnerved by a woman’s t-shirt that read “I’m Too Pretty to Do Math,” the narrator suggested a new t-shirt that reads “I’m Pretty and I Rule at Math.”

This is a very exciting time to be a young woman, said Sullivan. Women in STEM fields are in demand, and jobs in STEM are expected to increase over the next 20 years. The Tech Collective and the RI STEM Center intend to continue working to supply the nation with more women in the STEM workforce.

The Tech Collective is a nonprofit organization designed to promote Rhode Island’s workforce and industry development through initiatives that include STEM-based education and training programs for students in grades K through 16.

The RI STEM Center facilitates state-of-the-art professional development, research and collaborative partnerships among pre-K-through-college educators, teacher candidates, students and other community stakeholders to advance STEM education and literacy.