Appreciating the female factor in science, technology, engineering and mathematics
As a child, Amy Simon ’93 would often look toward the night sky, wide-eyed, and contemplate the infinite worlds that lay beyond her own. She’d never heard of STEM—the modern day acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She just knew she wanted to be a space scientist.
“I was always begging my parents to let me stay up and see lunar eclipses, and I remember seeing the nightly news coverage of the Voyager 1 and 2 planetary flybys in the outer solar system and being amazed by the beautiful images of these unknown worlds. Then, when the space shuttle program began and Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut, I was hooked,” Simon said.
[quote float=”right”]“I was always begging my parents to let me stay up and see lunar eclipses, and I remember seeing the nightly news coverage of the Voyager 1 and 2 planetary flybys in the outer solar system and being amazed by the beautiful images of these unknown worlds. Then, when the space shuttle program began and Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut, I was hooked,” Simon said. [/quote]
Simon, the associate director for strategic science in the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, had few other female role models illuminating her way into the sciences and was often one of a handful of women in her advanced math and science courses.
Today, women’s enrollment in STEM-related studies is increasing; however, their outlook on advancement and retention in such fields is more complex. A recent New York Times article analyzing barriers to entry for women in STEM disciplines cited factors such as fewer peers, lack of mentorship and limited examples of pathways to success in the field as problematic, but noted “the most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”
Urgency to prepare the next generation of STEM professionals is at a fever pitch in higher education. As the building blocks of innovation, the fields are critical to technological advancement. Yet, the United States is precariously low on producing the number of such graduates needed to maintain the country’s “historic preeminence” in the fields, according to a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
[box size=”large”][dropcap]T[/dropcap]he number of women obtaining advanced degrees in STEM fields is steadily increasing at Florida Tech. From 1982 to the present, female enrollment in STEM graduate programs has nearly doubled. [/box]
The number of women obtaining advanced degrees in STEM fields is steadily increasing at Florida Tech. From 1982 to the present, female enrollment in STEM graduate programs has nearly doubled. And, growth in full-time female faculty has also increased—by 67 percent. In fall 2013, the department of computer science—with a master’s program that has graduated an average of 17% female students over the last 13 years—hired its first full-time female faculty member.
Cultivating greater interest in STEM-related studies lies not only in encouraging greater participation, such as attracting more women and minorities to the fields, but also in improving, overall, how students are introduced to the topics.
Hands-on science and engineering tasks are fairly commonplace and have ignited the STEM spark for many women, like Laura Slovey ’04, flight test engineer for NAVAIR, who fondly remembers the traveling Star Lab planetarium that visited her elementary school and building model rockets in middle school.
Mathematics, on the other hand, has long been plagued by unimaginative teaching in the foundational years.
“Not many people know a mathematician or what they do,” said Eileen Corelli ’89 M.S. “Everybody knows what a chemist or an engineer does, but not a lot of people know how math is applied in these fields.”
As a doctoral student in operations research, Corelli says she still asks herself such questions despite more than 20 years as an applied mathematician. The future of math, she believes, is in its application—teaching students how to harness the power of math to solve problems in a variety of disciplines, not just toiling over formulas in isolation.
Programs like Florida Tech’s biomathematics degree, introduced in fall 2010, promote this interdisciplinary focus. “The biomathematics program is a natural extension of research collaborations between biology and mathematics at Florida Tech,” said Semen Koksal, vice president for academic affairs and founder of the program. “While still in its infancy, the program has exposed a significant number of biology students to upper-level math courses and mathematical research and exposed math students to the biological sciences. Just a couple of decades ago, these types of interactions were extremely rare.”
Also, new offerings like the STEM education major seek to prepare expert educators who can continue to inspire young minds. As a university rooted in the study of science and engineering, such progress is intrinsic.
For Florida Tech women in STEM—current students, faculty members and alumnae interviewed for this story—their experiences were remarkably similar.
While each experienced varying challenges in her pursuit of a STEM-focused discipline, none were particularly concerned. Overwhelmingly, the group’s greatest desires were to prove naysayers wrong, make their way on their own merits and make a difference in a discipline they loved.
[quote float=”left”]“Mentoring is essential in encouraging and engaging students in STEM education,” said Koksal, who mentors students through the Association of Women in Mathematics. [/quote]
Many have chosen to mentor younger STEM-inclined students of either gender, both formally and informally.
“Mentoring is essential in encouraging and engaging students in STEM education,” said Koksal, who mentors students through the Association of Women in Mathematics.In fact, a Lemelson-MIT survey found that a lack of mentorship and networking may be a huge factor in discouraging teenagers from pursuing STEM careers, so it is important that students understand what people in these fields do. As a mentor, I hope that my experience and encouragement will make a difference in young mathematicians’ lives.”