This is a guest post written by UMBC rising junior, Isabel Geisler, who is leading the charge for a new initiative on campus called The Reach Initiative.
I remember one night when I was young my sister and I were waiting for our mother to come home from work. We were excited because on that night, Nova was doing a special on Quantum Physics. There was one part I remember specifically, where the host is pushing up against a wall and telling the audience how theoretically, if he pushed against the wall long enough for thousands and thousands of years there is a chance that he could just push his arm though the solid wall.
This is obviously a gross over-simplification…but for a 5 year old, this was the closest I could get to magic.
“Quantum Physics: The Fabric of the Cosmos” you can still look up the show today, I even found out that the entire episode is actually from a book by Brian Greene. Last winter, I saw it in a used bookstore, but didn’t buy it because I didn’t think I’d understand it. I don’t know when and why specifically I lost interest in pursuing physics, but I’m guessing it started when I got my first ‘B’ in math and I hate to psychoanalyze myself…but this is how it starts off and ends for many young women who were previously interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) fields.
When we look at the STEM fields and look at the proportion of women and men who are pursuing degrees you will find that the majority are men. When speaking of primary education, boys are 6 times more likely than girls to have taken engineering. When speaking of college, the gap gets wider. Despite the fact that roughly 58% of all college students are women, in a computer science class men will outnumber women at a ratio of 8:2. When speaking of professional careers, on average, men will hold about 76% of all STEM jobs. These percentages are reflected across the US –including UMBC- and this does not even begin to include the gaps between Women of Color and their representation in the fields.
The STEM pipeline is the term used to describe this phenomenon. At every gap in this pipeline, for example, elementary school to middle school, we see women dropping out of STEM. Many assert that this is simply because women are not interested in a career that is famous for being unsociable and sterile. This is the wrong assumption. If we were to look at the experiences of many women in STEM, we would find an ongoing trend of implicit bias, discrimination, and a lack of institutional support. The gross underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields is not only unfair, but it is dangerous. How can our society expect to be innovative when 50% of our intellectual power is missing from the STEM workforce?
There have been many successful programs that aim to get women interested in STEM, but very few of them acknowledge the inherent bias in the STEM fields that many women struggle with. In the program that I am leading at UMBC, the UMBC Reach Initiative we do not simply want to encourage young women to enter into the STEM fields, we want to retain them. We want to create a network in a world where sometimes that network is non-existent.
The Reach Initiative is a yearlong program mentorship and research program for high school women who are interested in entering the STEM fields based on the research by the American Association for University Women, Girls Scouts, and several independent organizations funded by the National Science Foundation. In our first semester, we will provide our scholars a chance to explore the STEM fields, but we have also infused gender empowerment into the curriculum, with varying topics from combatting micro-aggressions to consent. During the second semester, the young women in our program will work with her UMBC mentor to create a research project that they can enter into science fairs and that they will present to their peers, families, and UMBC faculty at an end-of-the-year banquet.
We are currently looking for mentors for the young women who have decided to be a part of the program. If you are a passionate women attending UMBC who is pursuing a degree in the STEM fields or Environmental Science you can find the application here and a link to our FaceBook page here if you would like to learn more.
If you find yourself unable to apply as a mentor because you are not pursuing a STEM degree, do not have the time to commit, or are a female student please contact me at my e-mail (geisler3 at umbc dot edu) to learn more about how you can contribute or act as a leader as we pursue this project.