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Women in Science

Women in Science 2010

Bringing Women into Science Begins with Understanding What Girls Want from the Lab
By Donna Emert

When a smart, young, female statistician stands in front of group of bright, inquisitive high school girls and tells them that “the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” according to Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, she provokes a little laugh, and a lot of interest.

Varian uses “sexy” in the vernacular, meaning: attractive on many levels. Like so many careers in science, statistics and data analysis offer meaningful, challenging, plentiful work in a great environment, with a lot of smart colleagues.

When the big question of What Do Women Want? is asked, or more particularly, the question, What do Women Want from a Career in Science? the answer often involves all of the above, and almost always, something more:

“Research shows that young women pursue careers in science for more altruistic reasons than young men,” said chemist Anne Kern, assistant professor in science education, curriculum and instruction at the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene, and co-author of, “Attracting High School Females to the College of Science,” a study to be published in the journal, The Montana Mathematics Enthusiast (MME) later this year.

Kern co-authored the article with David Newcombe, microbiologist and assistant professor in environmental science, also at the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene. Loosely using the guidelines outlined in the MME article, the duo created a science experience to meet the distinctive needs of young women.

“In a word, young women want meaning,” said Kern. “They want their scientific work to have meaning. They want the science they do to have applications that solve real world problems.”

“One of things Dave and I talked about was our shared interest in water science,” Kern explained. “Then we asked, what could we do that would show girls the application of science in the real world, science in their own back yard, to show them that science really is relevant to their lives and to their community? Water quality is a huge issue, locally and globally, so we decided to create an experience for the girls to measure water quality.”

The authentic inquiry experience they designed focuses on a scientific issue of deep community concern: water quality monitoring and testing of the local watershed, Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River. The students worked alongside seasoned scientists, analyzing water samples using titration and other chemical and electronic tests to determine the samples hardness, pH, conductivity, as well as nitrate and chloride levels.

“When students have a reason to do something, they do it much more carefully than if it were just an exercise,” said Kern. “If you trust them with the equipment, and you validate their ability to weigh in on a serious problem, they inevitably rise to meet those high expectations.”

To address the distinctive concerns of young women, Kern and Newcombe created a gender-inclusive science experience by:

• Using real-world contexts to emphasize the societal relevance of science;
• Portraying science as a subject everyone can learn, rather than a difficult one;
• Showing girls how their interests in science rely on an integrated view of all science
disciplines, such as linking physical science concepts with life science contexts;
• Encouraging girls to become competent with scientific tools and equipment;
• provide opportunities for science projects that emphasize collaboration and
communication; and
• Promoting science-related careers for all students, showing examples of women and men in those careers.

The science experience they designed, specifically for young women, serves as the heart of the University of Idaho’s Women in Science recruitment efforts in North Idaho.

But why do we need women in science?

“Bringing women into the STEM fields provides a more inclusive, fuller representation of the entire population that science impacts,” said Kern. “Women have different personal experiences and perspectives than men. They also bring a stronger feeling of personal investment in human applications and outcomes of science. I think all of those qualities are of great value.”

The University of Idaho is actively engaged in bringing more women into science careers: the smart young statistician in the opening scenario is University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Statistics, Michele Wiest, and the inquisitive high schoolers were150 girls with demonstrated aptitude and interest in science from throughout northern Idaho. Wiest, Kern and Newcombe were among ten University of Idaho scientists who guided the girls through meaningful, locally and globally applicable scientific inquiry as part of a Women in Science program, delivered in Coeur d’Alene last November.

The challenge of bringing women into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is real: While women make up more than 50 percent of the population and 50 percent of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in science. While women earn up to 63 percent of all master’s degree, of those only 44 percent are in STEM fields. Additionally, of all the PhDs earned by women less than one third are in STEM fields.

“We are missing out on a huge pool of talent that the country needs to drive the economy and maintain our quality of life, as well as solve the technological problems facing today’s society,” said Scott Wood, dean of the College of Science and a chief architect of the Women in Science outreach program. “The nation cannot afford to ignore this vast untapped potential.”

To date, the University of Idaho’s Women in Science program has introduced more than 700 young women to careers in the sciences at Coeur d’Alene and Boise.

To inquire about how female students from your Idaho school can participate in Women in Science, contact University of Idaho College of Science at: science@uidaho.edu.

“Science comes alive when you can study it in your own backyard. And I firmly believe that. That’s what got ME interested.”

~ Dr. Anne Kern