Closing The STEM Gender Gap

By Susan Parrish
The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Engineering student Veronique Johnson leads a group of three male students in solving an equation in Tina Barsotti’s mechanics of materials class at Clark College. Of the 28 students in the class, seven students — or 25 percent — are women.

Times have changed in the 22 years since Barsotti was the only female student in her engineering classes.

“I think the numbers have increased nicely the last few years,” Barsotti said. “I hope our outreach is having some effect.”

Even so, a sizable gap remains between the numbers of men and women who pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math).

Barsotti and other Clark STEM professors and students reach out to elementary and middle school girls to offer hands-on, fun projects to entice girls to consider a career in a STEM field.

Their seven-week program is called NERD Girls (Not Even Remotely Dorky). Barsotti and her team take NERD Girls to several venues, including Harney Elementary.

During the first program at Harney this school year, three girls and 20 boys attended. The second week, no girls showed up. Tuesday, a girls-only NERD Girls program was offered at Harney. Here’s what happened when no boys were allowed: A dozen girls attended.

This Saturday, middle and high-school students of both sexes are invited to explore hands-on STEM-based activities when NERD Girls presents Science in Action at Clark College. It’s one of several local programs designed to help girls consider a STEM career. The goal is to reach girls early with the message that science and math are cool, and so are smart girls.

Sarah Morgan, 32, now a structural analysis engineer with Boeing in Houston, was the president of NERD Girls in 2010-11 when she was an engineering student at Clark.

“Being able to expose younger generations to women who are active in STEM fields or education not only shows the girls that they can do it, but also shows the boys that this is the norm and something that’s acceptable,” Morgan said in an interview Wednesday.

Morgan’s father, also an engineer, “exposed me to science and math and I wasn’t intimidated by those subjects,”she said. “Being intimidated by something can keep us from trying new things.”

Early on, Morgan dreamed of being an astronaut. Because she excelled in science and math, her high school career counselor suggested she become an engineer.

Between high school and college Morgan joined the Navy as an aviation structural and hydraulic mechanic. Of 300 students in the program, only three were female. While working on a Navy project, her team was assisted by a Boeing field engineer. That interaction whetted her appetite to become an engineer. So after more than five years in the Navy, she enrolled at Clark College, where she was one of three female engineering students in her classes. Despite her prior work experience, the studies weren’t easy.

“Sometimes I just needed somebody to tell me that I could do it. That I was smart enough, strong enough and capable enough,” Morgan said, “and that I deserved to earn the degree.

“When I was pulling my hair out and was ready to quit engineering because it was too hard, Tina (Barsotti) just flat out told me I couldn’t quit the program,” she said, laughing.

She transferred to Washington State University Vancouver, which didn’t have any female engineering professors. In one class of 50 students, Morgan and two other students were the only women. She earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from WSU in 2013 and was hired by Boeing.

STEM gender numbers

At Clark College, only 15 percent of the 267 students taking an engineering class spring quarter are women. Of the 117 students enrolled in at least one computer science course, only 14 percent are women, according to Clark College research analyst Susan Maxwell.

The numbers align with the reality in the computer science field, where only 15 percent of computer scientists in Washington are women.

In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM subjects, but when choosing a college major, just 0.3 percent of high school girls select computer science, according to the nonprofit Girls Who Code.

The burning question is why the number of female engineers and computer programmers is so low.

“Women are not choosing engineering and computer science careers because the culture inside and outside of those professions tells them they are not welcome,” said Nancy Niemi, associate professor who heads the education program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

“Engineers and computer scientists design and build things, and according to damaging myths, women are ‘naturally’ not good at these things — completely false.”

Morgan, who was encouraged by her engineer father, is moving closer to her childhood dream of being an astronaut. At Boeing she is part of a team working on extending the international space station flight in 2024.

On Wednesday, Expedition 39 of the international space station completed a space walk to replace a malfunctioning backup computer.

Morgan calculated the torque values for a couple of bolts holding the malfunctioning computer in place. Her work made it possible for astronauts to safely remove the bolts.

“To end up in the space industry is a blessing,” Morgan said. “I never really expected it, but it’s where I wanted to be. This is like my dream job. And it’s one step closer to astronaut.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

To Top