Although women now represent more than half of the labor force in the United States, they are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
That’s why local experts and professionals are continuing work to get girls involved and enlightened about STEM at a young age.
According to Theresa E. Mintle, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, STEM fields are among the fastest growing occupations in the country, with many reports suggesting there will be close to 500,000 new jobs in STEM by 2020. STEM jobs also tend to pay higher entry salaries.
“Our young women have significant wage and employment opportunities in STEM fields, but only if they receive the encouragement and opportunity in primary and secondary education to explore and pursue STEM learning, internships and jobs,” says Mintle.
Michelle Larson, president and CEO of Adler Planetarium, experienced first-hand the encouragement to study in the STEM fields.
“I was encouraged to enter physics because I was notorious for not knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up and my mentors convinced me that physics would provide me with a diverse set of skills and would leave all doors open,” she says.
“My experience has been that more minds are always better than a fewer minds. STEM is no exception, and progress requires teams with diverse talent and perspective,” Larson says. “By empowering and encouraging more girls, and more diverse populations overall, to pursue these disciplines, we strengthen our ability to ask meaningful questions and solve the mysteries and challenges that STEM professionals tackle every day.”
In order to reach more girls, Larson suggests meeting them where they are with their current interests.
“By exploring crossover areas like fashion and technology, mathematics and music, or engineering and community problem-solving, we have a better chance at starting with a shared interest,” she says.
One obvious place to start is within the classroom.
GEMS World Academy-Chicago is one school that is strongly focused on providing the tools and creating the atmosphere that will foster interest in STEM subjects.
According to Geoff Jones, GEMS World Academy Chicago founding head of school, educators must nurture students’ interest.
“At GEMS World Academy, we develop STEM subjects in the ways we live our lives and how we use knowledge by connecting to daily relevance in kids’ lives at that time,” says Jones.
Mintle, Larson and Jones all agree that empowering and encouraging more girls to pursue interests in STEM begins with parental involvement at home.
“As adults, especially women, we need to make sure our daughters, nieces and granddaughters are aware of the vast opportunity and application of STEM learning,” says Mintle. “And the best way to create the awareness is through example.”
“Bring your daughters into the kitchen and show them the science of baking and cooking. When the weather is changing and discussed on the news, talk about it, go outside, and experience the cold or rain. Find clubs that experiment with writing code and gaming. Support classroom learning and exploration even if it is nontraditional for you or your daughter.”
Larson suggests letting your child’s curiosity lead the way.
“Observe what they are wondering about, and enable them to follow their interest wherever it might take them,” Larson says.
“Find ways to connect your child with resources to further explore their backyard, their world and their universe. Focus on exploring and finding a passion. Then, that passion will drive your child to seek out the skills needed to go further.”
Mintle’s best advice to parents is to be fearless.
“Even if you don’t know the basics of the chemical reaction between flour and baking soda, or understand relative humidity, or see the value in writing code, give your young girl the chance to try it herself and get her the support through teachers, tutors, web-based application learning and science clubs to figure it out,” says Mintle.
“Embrace the opportunities that are inherent in STEM learning and be aware of the science that is all around us every day,” she says.
Megan Murray Elsener is a writer and mother of three.