How to help girls stick with STEM? Utah teachers normalize science careers early

Women continue to be underrepresented in technology fields, but public school teachers are trying to create support early.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mateya Celis launches a rocket during eigth grade science class at Lakeridge Jr High, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Women are still few in science and technology fields, and the women working in those fields want young girls to know there is plenty of room for them.

Amy Jenkins, a material science and engineering major at Salt Lake Community College, thinks girls would be less hesitant to pursue STEM studies if teachers and parents normalized the opportunities rather than prefacing them as being difficult or far-reaching.

“There is a misconception that [girls] have to be super nerdy or extra smart,” Jenkins said, comparing studying STEM to driving a car. “Everyone can learn to drive. It’s not a ‘man thing’ or a ‘nerdy girl’ thing to do.”

A recent study by Pew Research shows women continue to be underrepresented in technology fields despite efforts by colleges and businesses to create an inclusive environment. To see more than a small handful of girls in any college science, technology, engineering or math class would be unique at many universities. Educators believe lack of female support may be a contributing factor. Women seem to have their minds made up before they set foot on college campuses, and lack of exposure in early education may be the cause.

A more in-depth look at the study done by Pew shows the STEM gap is closing, with women making up 50% of technical careers in 2019. While this number seems promising, 74% of these women hold a job in health care, while fields such as math, technology and engineering continue to fall short, holding at less than 25% female.

Attitudes guide the future

Gabrielle van Brunt, an aerospace engineering major at Utah State University, theorizes it’s predetermined from a young age for girls to hate math and science.

“There’s a lot that can be done in the way teachers present [STEM studies] to keep it from deterring students from going into those fields,” said van Brunt, explaining that the attitude of parents and teachers is key to encouraging young minds.

As the president of Utah State’s chapter for the Society of Women Engineers, Van Brunt and her team visit elementary schools in northern Utah to do engineering experiments, such as creating paper and straw rockets with the kids. Their hope is to pique interest in engineering for all kids and to show young girls they do belong.

According to NASA, 565 people have traveled in space as of March of this year, and 65 of them were women. Young girls watching media coverage of launches are seeing the low number of women, which may be a contributing factor in why girls don’t think they belong.

Studies show that girls – and boys – tend to associate people working in the sciences as men. A 2006 exercise, later published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, asked several elementary-aged girls to draw someone working as a mathematician or similar STEM field. The experiment revealed that girls were twice as likely to draw a man in these fields as opposed to a woman.

Science that connects emotionally

The question educators are facing is how to encourage girls in these fields from a young age. A study by Columbia University found that men tend to use the left side of the brain (verbal reasoning), while women rely more on the right (visual, verbal and emotional connection).

Some teachers, like Andrea Wood, choose to tackle STEM subjects in a way that taps into the left side.

“I use a lot of music in my teaching,” said Wood, a fourth-grade teacher in the Granite School District. Wood explained that students perform far better in difficult subjects such as math if she introduces concepts to the tune of a catchy song with matching dance moves. Something else that has worked well for Wood is to connect difficult-to-understand STEM subjects to things that are fun, and she does this by using real-life examples.

Jamie Titensor, an engineering teacher at Viewmont High School, believes girls usually have their minds made up about whether they are STEM material before they get to high school. For the girls who do take her class, Titensor does her best to discuss their futures and encourage them to stick with their studies in college – even if they are in the minority in their classes.

Titensor received a bachelor’s in engineering from Brigham Young University and was one of the only women in several of her classes. She hopes she can be a role model for high school girls, showing them a woman can be successful in STEM.

“Girls are just as smart as boys, but we have a lot [of] options these days,” said Titensor.

According to Harvard Business Review, 40% of women who receive engineering degrees eventually quit their jobs. While the most popular reason is to raise their family, there is also toxicity in the workplace. Women said that they often felt treated stereotypically, one example being an assignment as the secretary in group projects while the men did the “real engineering work.”

Titensor believes women have a high emotional IQ and thinks they are more likely to remove themselves from a situation where they don’t feel accepted. In a 2020 study done by BYU, researchers learned that women are less likely to speak up if they are outnumbered by their male counterparts.

Creating a culture of belonging

Sharalyn Beazer, a math teacher at Viewmont High School, said being the only girl didn’t bother her.

“I was an electrical engineer major for a while, and in my calculus class there were two girls, and the rest were guys,” said Beazer.

While the lack of females in her college courses never swayed her, Beazer admits it was the pressure of the culture she was raised in that eventually pushed her to change her major to teaching – a career, she was told, that was more appropriate for a woman.

The BYU study suggests that women are more likely to speak up if there are multiple other women within the group. Beazer uses this idea in her classroom as she pairs students together. By putting more girls together in a group, she hopes they feel supported by one another and empowered to speak up. Today, Beazer said she sees more girls in her math classes, including honors and continuing education classes. Inspiring girls in high school and earlier education, Beazer said, is key to further bridging the gap.

Women role models, engaging classwork, and normalizing subjects previously seen as “nerdy” are a few steps to motivate girls towards STEM. Programs like “Stem like a girl” – a nonprofit organization created to empower elementary-aged girls through virtual workshops – may spark something everlasting within young girls. “When girls know what they’re talking about,” Beazer said. “Society needs to listen.”

Lauren Loock Wilcox wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.