STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
Just over six months ago, millions of Americans watched an election like no other. The possibility of the country's first ever female president sent waves of empowerment across the country that excited millions.
Then Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States.
With the votes counted, it was surprising to see that a majority of his voters were white females which begged the question... what would our country do next as far as women's rights were concerned? Would Americans continue down a road of empowerment and equality or would we retreat back to the age-old male hierarchy of power?
Luckily, millions of women have decided that women's equality is worth the fight. The day after Trump's inauguration, millions of enraged women took to the streets making their voices heard and their political and economic power undeniable. Furthermore, as Rebecca Ruiz, editor and reporter at NBC News Digital states, "the Super Bowl came next with politically confrontational ads, including one about equal pay from carmaker Audi. And on International Women's Day, brands like Stacy's Pita Chips and Western Union clamored to position themselves as front row cheerleaders in the fight for gender equality".
Whether you voted for Trump or not is NOT the issue being address in this month's article. And quite honestly I don't care. I am choosing to spend my energy and brain power changing the lives of future generations of women.
The point of this article is to demonstrate that female empowerment is in and it is not going anywhere. And furthermore, to highlight an amazing organization working to empower young women through education and exploration.
In an era when women are increasingly prominent in fields such as medicine, law, and business, other fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are substantially lacking in the equal distribution of women to men. Much research has been done on this topic but the general consensus points to environmental and social barriers, including stereotypes, gender bias, and the culture of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities that continue to block women's progress in STEM.
Without further ado, FemTribe would like to present May's Woman of the Month organization: Femme in STEM. This organization is led by five incredible Denver University students who are working towards the advancement of young girls age 9-13 years old to pursue interest and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
1. What is Femme in STEM?
Femme in STEM is a program hosted by the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver. It takes the form of day-long events at the CWC where girls ages 9-13 from across the Colorado Front Range engage with current DU students in actual research areas and have some STEM fun. The day begins by splitting the girls into small groups and having them specialize in one STEM field for hour-long, in-depth activities that spark inquiry-based learning. Following a mini-tour and lunch in the on-campus dining halls (the oft-cited favorite part of day, especially the froyo machine), in the afternoon girls share what they learned with their peers in a high-energy, rotating science fair. This combination of depth and breadth allows the girls to learn something cool and meaningful and then become empowered to share that knowledge.
2. Brief history/overview of Femme in STEM since its birth.
Femme in STEM has a fast and furious history and only continues to expand. In May of 2015 five DU students, fed up with the continuous struggle of women in STEM – particularly at the collegiate level – applied for a grant through the Pioneer Leadership Program to develop and host a program focused on empowering women in STEM. We were lucky enough to receive this grant, and the Let’s Put the Femme in STEM initiative was born.
After further research, we decided to focus on girls ages 9-13 as this is the precipice where girls turn from being equally enthusiastic about STEM as boys, to falling drastically behind. Knowing the five of us wouldn’t have kept pursuing STEM without strong encouragement, role models, and opportunities, we felt strongly about providing an event that would bring these girls to campus to interact with current, passionate students.
Our first event in November 2015 was attended by 50 girls from three schools and featured five different activities. After receiving another grant from the DU Pioneer Leadership Program, we were able to host an event in April of 2016 with 60 girls from six schools and six activities. Though we have now graduated, Femme in STEM was able to find a new home in the Colorado Women’s College at DU as a key STEM program in their re-imagination. Our 3rd event, happening May 13, 2017 will host 75 girls from 25+ schools and feature 6-8 activities.
With so many cultural barriers stacked against them, it is vital to give girls the tools to overcome that stigmatism in the future by showing them what they are capable of now. Sitting in front of them at the end of each Femme in STEM event, asking what they know and receiving enthusiastic explanations of cryptography, forensic chemistry, and the mating rituals of crickets, as well as one “I made up a song about math!”, it is always evident we have been successful. They will doubt themselves for one day less, and that is itself a step forward.
Funding has been the classic hurdle, and it has been challenging to do this with no institutional backing, whether from a club or from the university itself. One of the biggest hurdles was getting the first event off the ground and getting it taken seriously by the ‘powers that be’ and potential attendees. Also, convincing the faculty/staff at DU to take us seriously and let the program continue took time and work. This was difficult because we weren’t affiliated with a club/organization per se, so we were kind of floating on our own until CWC agreed to give FiS a home.
Another challenge has been balancing being close friends and colleagues, and this is a continuous learning process. It takes a lot of effort to compartmentalize FiS vs everything else and not let the two derail each other. We all knew each other but didn’t have a complete idea of how we would work as a team. But we largely figured things out over time with lots and lots of sometimes arduous communication.
Event 1: November 2015; 50 attendees from 3 schools
Funded on a shoestring budget of $800 from DU PLP passport fund!
Event 2: April 2016; 60 attendees from 6 schools
Funded on 2nd PLP passport grant
Event 3: May 2017: on track for 75 attendees from 31 schools
Funded by and hosted under the Colorado Women’s College
3. Who is on the Femme in STEM team and what do they do?
Faith Lierheimer: Co-Coordinator and volunteer coordination - Faith handles the recruiting of volunteers and trains them, as well as handling volunteer traffic on the day of the event. General administrative duties are doled out in meetings--getting IRB approval for our surveys, survey analysis in the past, helping with recruitment, writing for the website, helping to recruit activity leaders.
Maddie (“Mathie”*) Doering: Co-Coordinator - Maddie handles registration (which includes marketing, recruiting, outreach, and physically signing up the girls), activity/curriculum curation, and website/social media maintenance. She finds girls to participate, convinces people to run FiS activities, and posts material online. In general, it’s an “all hands on deck” event. *During the first event, one girl raised her hand and said Maddie should be called “Mathie” because she loved math so much. And the nickname has stuck ever since!
Sierra Ashley: Co-coordinator - Sierra is currently a remote consultant as she has moved out of state to serve with AmeriCorps. She helps wherever needed but mainly contributes ideas and support for the team. She will be back in town for the 2017 event and cannot wait to help with all the craziness of the day itself.
Brian Ketterman: Co-coordinator - Brian handles a lot of the logistical side of things--meaning that he finds physical spaces to hold the events, figures out parking, and orders and purchases supplies for the day. He was asked to be a part of the team because of the whole male-ally thing, but he suspects that being good at this sort of thing also had something to do with it.
McKenzie Ramirez: McKenzie was one of our original members, but she has bowed out for 2017 for job reasons. The beautiful logo and our general visual design is solely the product of her artistic genius.
4. Who started Femme in STEM and when/where? Why did you start Femme in STEM? What called you to do this? When you were a young child, was there an outlet for your scientific exploration?
I remember this as being Maddie and Sierra’s brainchild. Specifically, I remember getting lunch with Maddie and Sierra and hearing them talk about the idea for the event, and then saying “I want in, the gender gap in STEM is something that makes me mad and something I want to try to tackle. What can I do?” Then, in late September, Maddie and Brian and I were in a science education seminar where we needed to make some kind of science education material for our final project. We decided that this was the kick we needed to get the event started.
Given that interest tends to drop around 9-13 (right around puberty, right when girls start to experience more harmful gender-related stereotypes) we are passionate about reaching this population in particular. When I was a little girl, my parents offered vague (yet enthusiastic) encouragement of my scientific exploration, the extend of it was making concoction upon concoction of various plants and foods and my parents benevolently letting me mess with these things in the kitchen.
In May of 2015 there was an opportunity through DU (the Pioneer Leadership Program) to apply for grants to fund student passion projects. This came at a time when I was really struggling with myself and math, and myself in math. As I much as I may internally cringe at the pervasive “I’m not good at math” trope, I would be hypocritical if I didn’t admit I had let my own seed of doubt take root within my heart with the mantra “I’m not good enough.”
Though given strong encouragement throughout my undergraduate career, I was constantly comparing myself to a fictitious, idealized, “other student” who would do better work or learn faster. It was years before I realized my vision of this “student” was not only superfluous, but male. Subtly and sneakily, I had fallen victim to a cultural paradigm I had long believed I was above. Back to May 2015 - I remember sitting in the Physics building one evening with several friends and turning to Sierra and basically saying: If I write this, will you do it with me? And then we were off.
My mom talks about when I was little I’d only play the math computer games, she had to force me to play any of the reading/writing ones (my sister being the exact opposite). I definitely participated in all the extra math-things and may have won a few elementary competitions. What really hit me hard about the realization I talked about above was that no one had ever told me I couldn’t do it. All the people who really care about me - from elementary, middle and high school teachers, to my parents, to my dear college advisor - were pushing me to “go all the way”. So if I managed to convince myself that I sucked at math and wasn’t good enough, what about all those girls who don’t have that constant support?
I get so pumped up talking about the start of this whole venture! Like Maddie said, we were studying in the physics building with a bunch of male colleagues when she brought the idea up to me. This idea came at a time in my academic career when I was in classes that were about 70% male. Even though Maddie wasn’t in any of my physics classes I always wanted her to come along to our study sessions so I wasn’t the only woman present (and because she’s great company). I was so excited to get girls as excited about science as I am.
As much as I knew about the need for women in science based on statistics alone, it really became evident to me in my higher level courses that we need more women in science just due to the ratio of men to women in my physics classes. This is not to say the men in my classes weren’t great friends and super supportive but having more women as role models and peers would’ve made my time in academia feel like less of an uphill battle.
Never having been a little girl, my presence on this team might at first raise a few eyebrows. Though I completely share the attitude of my three female teammates concerning the problem we’re trying to counteract, being a man means that I simply cannot completely empathize with the situations they faced.
As Faith and Maddie mentioned, we were in a seminar together when this project started to become “real” and I was asked to come aboard. It was of course necessary that I shared their desire to do something tangible about the girls-in-STEM problem, but my presence on this team is perhaps most important in showing the girls that come to our events that they have male allies--that for this whole idea to work, men have to be on board too, and we are!
5. Why is this important to you? Why is it (or should it be) important to other women and young girls?
Most research we have on the gender gap in STEM suggests that young girls lose interest in STEM between the ages of 9-13. These girls who drop off the map between 9-13 represent a huge loss in brainpower and in potential scientific progress to every STEM field, and there’s no reason why that has to happen. We have an opportunity to intervene in these girls’ lives and take a stab at mending the leaky pipeline sending girls into high-powered STEM careers. This should matter to everyone because girls losing interest in STEM means we are losing brainpower and potentially impeding scientific progress--exciting new advances are only made faster when we get more brilliant minds working on them.
I think I’ve hit home why Femme in STEM is personally important. People might argue “it shouldn’t be about gender; it should be about the science.” I agree. But it’s currently not all about the science when many girls and women aren’t given equal consideration from the onset. One side of the struggle is convincing current women in STEM that just because they have made it through doesn’t mean the majority of girls, especially girls of color, will have similar success without help. The other side is convincing those who see themselves as “non-scientists” that science and female contributions are important. Fortunately, current conversations are emphasizing how our society and future depends on science and innovation. We need and strive on diversity of ideas, and we can’t do that without more women in STEM.
Beyond the evident gender gap, there are still huge issues in the scientific community itself that we could make headway on if only there were more women pursuing science beyond a vague interest or inclination. Like Maddie and Faith have kind of hit on, we are losing out on half the population’s ideas by inadvertently telling women and girls that they aren’t smart enough to pursue science.
I went through undergrad on the pre-medicine track, and studied with a cohort that was at least half women, if not more (and, actually, current medical school enrollments reflect this trend). Much as Maddie expressed her concern that the women in STEM already might be less worried about the problem because they had already ‘made it’, I became worried by my health-focused classmates seemed blinded to the issue simply because they didn’t see that alarming gender disparity (in fields like physics and math) every day.
6. Upcoming events, news, or things to look for in the future
May 13th event has a few spaces left! Event is FREE! Look for more events in the future, specifically sponsored by the Colorado Women’s College. Visit femmeinstem.org to register or learn more.
7. What is your dream vision for Femme in STEM? If money was not an issue, what would you do with Femme in STEM and why? I want your big dreams!
I want to see Femme in STEM happening at the end of every quarter, and a pipeline built for the local Denver community. I would love to see girls who have ‘aged out’ of femme in STEM coming to help at the event as junior volunteers--14 year olds coming to help run activities & demonstrate things at the science fair, and those older girls getting connected to other science events via FiS, and building the next generation of lady scientists! Later down the road, I’d love to see this event replicated at other universities as a way for them to build connections with their local school districts to attract more young girls to their schools.
The strength of Femme in STEM is that it is student run and draws on core STEM areas on campus. My dream would be for our current event to be the cornerstone of a whole suite of programming. Beyond our current events, Femme in STEM would also host extended camps and a mentorship program that would partner young girls with college students on projects they would then publish/present. I’d like Femme in STEM to be doing cutting edge research and experimentation on STEM education in partnership with the Morgridge School of Education on campus. I’d also like the CWC to be a hub for all the girls in STEM programming across Colorado to unify a lot of really great efforts. Ultimately, I’d like Femme in STEM to become more STEAM focused and really incorporate every facet of the University of Denver.
For my part, I would love to see Femme in STEM continue to grow at the University of Denver but I would also love for it to become an online resource for STEM activities across the country. I love moving around and learning about all the STEM activities available for girls in my region. I just want all that information compiled into one place.
There is absolutely spectacular scientific research being conducted across the STEM spectrum at the University of Denver by brilliant (both female and male) faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. My dream vision is one where departments and labs are CLAMORING to get a spot to teach an activity at Femme In STEM each time it rolls around. The possibilities for what we could teach in-depth would be superb, and the girls we invite would be able to see just how invested people are in them!
8. That you know of, is anyone else doing anything similar?
There are actually quite a few girls in STEM events in Denver, two of the big ones being Girls Explore STEM put on by the Society of Women Engineers (an engineering-focused event) and Girls & Science put on by the Denver Museum of Nature & Sciences. Both of these events have similar aims as ours, but they target different audiences. GE STEM--7th grade girls in particular, focused on activities by STEM professionals and not necessarily experimental inquiry activities; Girls & Science same age as us, but focused on breadth rather than depth of exposure.
Our event is unique because we combine depth and width of exposure, and give the girls a chance to build their self-efficacy (feeling like they are good at a given STEM field) in the second half of the day. I think we combine the best of both worlds.
Girls in STEM is definitely a hot topic right now, and has been for at least the last decade. Most school districts have some sort of program or focus, some better than others. Coding is really where the focus is right now.
I live in Montana currently and serve with the Girl Scouts here and they have some programming like this nationwide but I would love to see more (or at least have more Girl Scouts come to events like ours).
9. How can your Denver community support the growth of Femme in STEM?
Send your girls to our event, follow us on social media, follow our website for the next event, have us come talk to your group (philanthropy? Volunteer?) to talk about the event to recruit girls, etc.
Keep supporting women in STEM and encourage your girls to explore whatever interests they have. Get on our mailing list at femmeinstem.org, follow us on twitter at Femme_in_STEM and contact us to share ideas, donate to Femme in STEM or volunteer for our events.
Support the Colorado Women’s College and their push for more STEM oriented programming for women of all ages.
What Faith, Maddie, and Sierra said here are definitely the most specific things. But I would add that Femme in STEM can only grow as long as girls want to come to an event like it--so just give tons of encouragement to all the brilliant young lady scientists in your life!
10. Any closing comments or things you want me to know that I didn't ask?
While our events are for anyone who identifies as female, volunteers can be of any gender and you don’t have to have science experience, just science enthusiasm.
Resources and Further Reading: