Girls in STEM: Great Strides But Still a Ways to Go

Broadcom MASTERS® alumnae amaze and inspire us, long after they leave the engineering and science-fair competition sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation.

As the Broadcom Foundation recognizes Girls in ICT (Information and Computer Technology) Week, we want to give these young students extra kudos for their talent and tenacity in an industry that needs to work harder at attracting and retaining female voices.

Take, for example, Julienne Sauer of San Ramon, Calif., who was inspired by the prospect of a levitating superconductor. Julienne began experimenting with two cooling techniques, the Meissner effect and quantum locking. Her quest was to discover which disc would hold the most weight under which cooling technique. She sought advice from professional scientists and gathered superconducting discs of differing materials from local companies that provided her with insight and encouragement to complete her winning project.

And then there’s Emma Ashley Burnett of Pittsburgh, Penn., whose curiosity was piqued by the brilliant glow of feldspar under UV light. The 12-year-old began her own research into fluorescence by studying the role impurities play in producing different colors when a mineral is fluoresced. With the help of a spectroscope made available to her by a supporter she was able to discover how the mineral elements present in feldspar affect those colors.

Another MASTERS alum, Smita Mohindra of Yorktown Heights, NY, was moved to research sensors when her grandfather twisted his neck during the simple act of reaching for something in his kitchen. Thirteen-year-old Smita envisioned a non-surgical alternative to warn potential victims of the types of neck motions that can lead to this type of injury that can result in a mini-stroke, as it did for her grandfather. After gathering data through research and with help and support from experts, Smita soldered touch sensors to a soft, wearable collar.  She plans to test her innovative technology on high-risk patients.

These innovative young MASTERS women demonstrate the kind of promise that is championed by the Broadcom Foundation, which aims to increase opportunity for women and other represented groups in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) by promoting the power of project-based learning and the excitement of participating in a science fair as the cornerstones of its STEM initiative.

It’s a daunting task.

STEM careers are among the fastest growing in the country, but women are not entering these fields in significant numbers. According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but make up only 24 percent of STEM professionals.

On the upside, women who choose STEM careers typically earn 33 percent more than women entering other fields, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

That leaves many to wonder: Why there are still so few women entering and sticking with STEM careers?

Studies show that girls often disconnect from STEM subjects in middle school, the age when the need for peer acceptance can become overwhelming. At this preteen stage, math and science are sometimes viewed as uncool. Girls may fear being ostracized from other groups if they appear focused on “heavy disciplines” such as math and science.

Moreover, parents and teachers may subconsciously intimate that STEM fields are male pursuits and unintentionally pass this bias along. Lastly, recent studies have shown that there are often lower expectations for girls regarding performance in math and science, according to AAUW’s landmark 2010 study.

Without teacher encouragement or strong professional female role models, girls who show an early interest in math and science may lose their enthusiasm and stop taking STEM classes after middle school.

So what can be done about this? The Board of the Broadcom Foundation has chosen to focus the Foundation’s STEM advocacy on keeping kids — and this specifically includes young women — interested in STEM subjects throughout high school.

Retention of young women in STEM fields through high school begins with teachers, parents and mentors giving students insight into what a successful career looks like for a future female scientist, engineer, researcher, mathematician or chemist. Teachers can encourage students arranging meetings with female STEM professionals at school or during after-school programs.  Parents can take their daughters to STEM-oriented community events at museums and science centers and encourage clubs oriented towards STEM achievement such as the Girl Scouts or Girls, Inc.

These interactions help young women view becoming and scientist or engineer as interesting, accessible and obtainable. Hands-on, project-based learning both in and out of the classroom can add insight into how subjects such as math and science apply in interesting fields such as health care, communications, environmental protection and entertainment.

To improve gender equation in STEM also requires action by federal, state and local governments and fortunately, there are a number of meaningful initiatives in the works.

Earlier this month, the 21st Century STEM for Underrepresented Students Act was introduced in Congress to help fund STEM education programs for girls and other minority students for kindergarten through eighth grade.  The White House’s Educate to Innovate initiative, which has been advocated by Broadcom Foundation, includes programs that prioritize gender inequity in STEM fields. And the Department of Education’s Invest in Innovation grants that was launched last month gives priority to schools that support women and girls in STEM.

There is an expanding cohort of non-profits, including STEM Funders Network, of which Broadcom Foundation and the Samueli Foundation are charter members. There’s also groups such as Tech Girls, Girls Start, Girls, Inc. that are dedicated to encouraging STEM learning in after-school and summer programs at both the elementary and middle school levels.

These initiatives encourage young womens’ enthusiasm to apply science and math skills in their everyday world.  Members of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Broadcom Women’s Network (a company-wide affinity group) are energetically working to mentor and inspire young women with innovative outreach programs.

Next month, Broadcom will host a group of young women delegates from all over the world in the Broadcom MASTERS® International program at our world headquarters in Irvine, Calif.  Just like Broadcom MASTERS alums Julienne, Emma and Smita, they are exemplars of the power of project-based learning and beacons of a promising future for women in STEM fields.

So as we celebrate Girls in ICT Day, let’s keep the momentum going. Encourage women who find their passion in science and engineering and applaud their progress. Commit to paving the way for their future success.