Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Building the Sisterhood of Science

Residential Programs: Successful Intervention Strategies to Encourage Girls to STEM

I am the direct beneficiary of outreach programs to encourage girls to pursue opportunities in the STEM arena.  My participation in two specific programs, NASA's Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (NASA SHARP) and UC Berkeley's Womyn in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential living program, prepared me to complete a bachelor's degree in environmental science from UC Berkeley.  Gender specific programming is necessary to open the pipeline for more women in the STEM professions.  The earlier you build a girl's confidence in math and science, the further and faster she can go in building her career.  In particular, gender specific residential based STEM programs provide girls with the personal and professional support to build lifelong networks.

In 2001, I was selected to participate in NASA's Summer High School Apprenticeship Research program for women and ethnic minorities.  The program was completely free; room, board, and transportation were provided in addition to a stipend.  For approximately ten weeks, incoming high school seniors were placed in research groups at the University of Michigan.  I worked with Dr. Keolian at the Center for Sustainable Systems to conduct a life cycle assessment of a re-manufactured engine.  It was such an exciting research endeavor!  In addition to lab work, students had a daily morning seminar about STEM careers, site visits on the weekends, and social programming.  The students lived together in college dorms which allowed for intense bonding.  I made lifelong friends and colleagues that continue to support me today.  Early in my career, thanks to NASA SHARP, I developed the skills and confidence in science which ultimately earned me one of the few spots as an out-of-state student at UC Berkeley.

Since I had such a positive experience with NASA SHARP, my father encouraged me to apply to live in Berkeley's WISE dormitory for female students pursuing STEM majors.  Students attended weekly seminars connecting them to STEM faculty and research opportunities.  Many of the students were taking the same difficult math, science, and engineering classes, so we studied together and supported each other through these challenging courses.  I started at Berkeley as a geology major, but the demands of the very hard science courses proved very tough for me.  I considered switching to an easier social science degree, but my girlfriends encouraged me to stick it out in science.  Today, the women I met at WISE continue to be my best friends and support me tremendously in my professional life.

The power of the female bond cannot be underestimated.  As women seek to break the glass ceiling in male dominated fields of science and engineering, they break through more easily when supported by other women, especially their peers.  Residential programs literally provide women the safe space to share their challenges and support each other to overcome hardship.  The informal space of a collegial environment allows the opportunity for conversations that may not arise in more formal programs.  Living together allows women to connect in unique ways.

As advocates of women in STEM explore options to close the gender parity gap, they should consider the power of gender specific residential programs.  Many college campuses have women in science and engineering residential programs.  Advocates can explore how these programs can be enhanced. Where such dorm programs do not exist, companies and philanthropists can consider making long-term capital investments to endow buildings designated for women in STEM.  In addition to college dorms, advocates can create residential programs for high school girls such as summer programs. Building communities of the Sisterhood of Science will provide young women the necessary support systems to excel in their careers.

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