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Girls Offer Fresh Perspective on Persistent Challenges

By Donna Emert

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – Approximately 150 potential scientists from around the region—all of them currently tenth grade girls—are conducting chemical and biological analysis of Spokane River water, observing live protozoa under compound microscopes and gaining insights into how human choices impact the environment.

The girls are participating in the Women in Math and Science program, delivered by University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene and North Idaho College in their laboratories Oct. 9 and 10, with support from the U-Idaho College of Science, the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) in Idaho, the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (iBEST) and the Idaho IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).

The event stresses hands-on discovery and analysis conducted in the students’ own community. It is designed to inspire young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses throughout high school and college.

Women have achieved parity in many professions traditionally dominated by men, but still lag behind in STEM careers. The program aims to help young women make informed decisions about STEM college degree programs and ultimately, to choose related careers.

“Women represent 50 percent of the workforce, and offer fresh insights and new approaches to problems."
~Anne Kern

Becoming a woman of science can be a challenge in a society with a pervasive bias: A recent study conducted at Yale University found that American professors of science, regardless of their own gender, exhibited biases against women pursuing careers in science.

Young women seem to recognize that intuitively.

“People don’t think women are as smart as men because they have traditionally been doing house work and raising kids,” said Adonna Rogers, a program participant from Post Falls High School. “But women are just as smart as men. Women can make a difference in science too.”

It is imperative that both genders are represented in STEM careers, says Anne Kern, professor of curriculum and instruction at U-Idaho Coeur d’Alene and one of the Women in Math and Science founders.

“There are differences in attitude, experience and perspective that women bring to STEM research and careers,” said Kern. “Women represent 50 percent of the workforce, and offer fresh insights and new approaches to problems. Women’s unique insights into scientific and technological challenges help us come up with viable new approaches and solutions.”

Students of both genders are more readily engaged when they address issues that impact their own communities—like measuring and monitoring water quality in their own region, said Kern. The focus on regional water quality has been a constant in the five-year history of the program in North Idaho.

Participating girls include students from Post Falls, Coeur d’Alene, Lakeland, Sandpoint, Kellogg, West Bonner, Plummer/Worley, and Boundary school districts. They worked alongside their science teachers, men and women scientists in higher education, and women scientists from the private sector.