Trailblazing Women Inspire Girls to Explore STEM Careers

by Kathie Brown
University of Illinois Extension

A new partnership is part of a growing network that aspires to develop a STEM workforce in the region.

Science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM disciplines. We’re told they are the key to securing the high-paying jobs of the future; to addressing global challenges related to food, water, energy and health; and to growing innovative industries that compete and prosper in the global economy. But there’s a problem. Employers struggle to find workers with the skills and credentials for STEM jobs today, and too few youth—especially women—are entering the educational pipeline for the STEM jobs of tomorrow.

Peoria’s Response: the 4G STEM Camp for Girls
Women leaders in Peoria’s manufacturing, technology and education sectors came together earlier this year to launch a weeklong day camp for 29 girls entering 7th and 8th grades. The 4G STEM Camp for Girls is aimed at overcoming barriers for girls getting involved with STEM. Regional partners include the Bradley University Center for STEM Education; Illinois Central College; Economic Development Council of Central Illinois; Workforce Alliance Central Illinois; the University of Illinois Office of Math, Science and Engineering Technology Education; and the University of Illinois Extension.

Held in July, the camp was designed around site visits to four area businesses: Farnsworth Group, OneFire Media, Caterpillar and the Jump Trading Simulation and Education Center. Successful women working in STEM careers provided an orientation to their work, including the skills, technologies and strategies used to excel in their jobs. Camp experiences ignited a spark of possibility within these girls, grounded in the reality of dynamic women leading creative, fulfilling careers in Peoria.

“We see the future of our region in these girls understanding that, even though challenges arise, as empowered learners, they can achieve anything,” notes Amy Lambert of OneFire Media. “We especially wanted to support the young ladies in their endeavors and introduce them to women in their fields of interest.”

Sarah Johnson of the Jump Trading Simulation and Training Center shared her aspirations for the camp. “I hope the girls walked away with an expanded horizon regarding career opportunities within the healthcare realm,” says Johnson. “And I hope that through the experiential learning sessions, they observed the diverse skillsets and backgrounds that one can study in order to pursue a career in the areas of STEM.”

A Question of Supply and Demand
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, STEM jobs grew at more than three times the rate of non-STEM jobs between 2000 and 2010, and by 2018, STEM jobs are projected to grow another 17 percent. But despite strong demand in the job market, surprisingly few high school students are setting their sights on STEM careers. Only 11 percent of high school graduates in 2013 expressed an interest in a STEM major or occupation, and of that group, just half met readiness benchmarks for college-level math and science. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings, yet U.S. universities are expected to produce qualified graduates to fill just 29 percent of these jobs.

What’s true of the workforce and students overall is especially true of women and girls. They are underrepresented—both in STEM jobs and in the undergraduate degrees that lead to STEM jobs. Although women make up fully half of today’s college-educated workforce, they hold just 24 percent of STEM jobs. In 2009, women held 40 percent of physical and life science positions, 25 percent of STEM manager positions, 24 percent of computer science and math jobs, and 14 percent of engineering jobs. Caterpillar’s Stacey DelVecchio offered insights on her own academic interests and career development. "I love math and still do,” she says. “While not a requirement for being an engineer, it led me down a path that has been rewarding and challenging for over 25 years."

Women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, and the so-called wage gap is substantially less as well. Women in STEM earn $0.86 for every dollar their male colleagues earn, compared to $0.79 in non-STEM fields. The pay gap narrows further in STEM managerial ($0.91), physical and life sciences ($0.92) and engineering ($0.93) positions, according to the Commerce Department.

Given these strong signals and opportunities in the marketplace, why are so few women and girls pursuing STEM education and careers? The Commerce Department reports that STEM gender differences may be attributable to work incentives, flexibility and lack of role models. Gender stereotypes may also discourage women from pursuing STEM education and STEM jobs. The need to increase diversity in the workforce cannot be overstated, according to DelVecchio. "Having diverse teams provides the best solution,” she observes. “Consider gender as Diversity 101.”

Expanding the STEM Workforce
The best opportunity to quickly grow the STEM workforce is to increase the percentage of women and girls in the education pipeline. Studies show the middle-school years are particularly important in the formation of career goals. Experiences and memories forged in middle school have the potential to motivate and structure the high school and college years ahead. Girls in middle school with commitment and direction have the opportunity to take classes and earn the grades to enter college in the STEM major of their choice.

Building on that all-important middle-school experience, Amy Lambert shares, “When we were facilitating discussions with the girls about their individual dreams and goals, we were able to see their diversity and passion and hear their stories about why they wanted to pursue those goals. I feel the biggest impact for the participants at this age was the affirmation of their own individual possibility, support for their goals, and finding the same energy in others.”

It came as a surprise to some campers that the STEM sector is not just about crunching numbers and data. Employers are looking for technically-qualified workers who can effectively communicate, collaborate and innovate. Businesses need employees who know how to network, manage time and work in diverse teams. To that point, Stacey DelVecchio says, “Caterpillar believes girls and women are key in addressing the world's toughest challenges. By engaging young students early in their education, we can expose them to the benefits of working in an inclusive environment where you can really make an impact on the world with your innovative ideas.”

Economic centers like Peoria are wise to invest in their local schools. That is where tomorrow’s businesses are best positioned to identify, recruit and retain over the long haul. The STEM Camp—and the partnership that established it—is part of a growing network among students, educators and the business community that aspires to develop and retain a diverse STEM workforce within the region.

Karen Jensen, CEO of Farnsworth Group, views the STEM Camp as a positive experience for all involved, not just the students. “Not only is the STEM Camp beneficial for these bright young individuals, but our employees really enjoy spending time with these students—and are inspired by the campers’ questions and curiosity.” iBi

Kathie Brown is an Extension educator, community and economic development, for the University of Illinois Extension serving central and west-central Illinois.