Girl Power - Middle school students particiapting in math and science

Yes, They Can: The Possibilities for Women Who Study Math and Science

Little girls are taught they can be anything they want to be, so the sky seems to be the limit when it comes to their career choices. But studies show that when little girls grow up to be young women, they don’t often make choices that lead them down a path of science or math.

A 2006 study by the National Science Foundation details the number of doctoral degrees awarded to women in various science-based fields. The data show that roughly 55-percent were awarded degrees in social science, 49-percent in life science, and 27-percent in physical science and only 18-percent of women became engineers.

According to University of Idaho College of Science Dean Scott Wood, those results show that women are taking an interest in social and life sciences – and their interests are leading them to careers in that field. But, the U.S. is still behind when it comes to sparking women’s interest in degrees like physics, chemistry, earth science and engineering.

With Wood’s help, the University of Idaho is working to change those statistics.

For the past five years, the University of Idaho-Boise and the College of Science have collaborated to offer the Women in Math and Science Day. It’s a unique experience where young girls learn from successful women and realize the scientific opportunities in their future.

“Innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM fields – is crucial to strengthening our economy and moving our state forward,” explains Wood. “We need to employ all of our best talent in these areas, but we are currently missing out on a large pool of capable women, especially in the physical sciences and in engineering. That is why programs such as these are so important to stimulate and nurture interest and show young women what is possible.”

“I thought this was a good way to open up my eyes and see what really goes on, whether it was testing water or doing an experiment,” said Cassie Schiller, a seventh-grader at Heritage Middle School.

Over a two-day period, 150 girls from the Boise and Meridian school districts got to experience the fun of science up close and personal.

The group was selected by their teachers to participate in the experiment titled, “Hey, What’s in my Water?” The level of the water’s hardness, conductivity, nitrate and pH balance were all investigated as beakers, probes and dirty water made up the scientific experiment. It was a hands-on adventure meant to stimulate the mind and spark interest, but more importantly it gave the girls an opportunity to interact with successful women in math and science fields.

19 women mathematicians, scientists and engineers volunteered their time to help the girls with the experiment. Their educational levels ranged from masters degrees to doctorial candidates from the University of Idaho – Boise, along with seasoned veterans. Organizations that supported the volunteers were the Department of Environmental Quality, the State of Idaho Geographic Information Systems, SuperValue, United Water, St. Luke’s Medical Center, the City of Boise Waste Management and the University of Idaho.

“I wanted to see some of the areas that are involved in math and science,” said Stephanie Hall, a seventh-grader at Heritage Middle School. “I also wanted to see what some women have done with math and science.”

From water research to family health, the two days of science and math wasn’t just about experiments. Dr. Patrice Burgess, a family physician, and Catherine Chertudi, an environmental programs manager for the city of Boise, were keynote speakers. Michelle Wiest, PhD and Assistant Professor of Statistics at the University of Idaho, also spoke about her career experiences in statistics. Their expertise and background allowed the girls to open their minds to other options and explore the possibilities that math and science can provide.

For Bronwyn Butuk, a seventh-grader, the experience helped her explore the idea of a career in medicine and continue her goal of being a family doctor.

“I loved to explore more deeply into careers for women in math and science. I think that the experience will have an effect on my choice for a career because of how the women made the jobs sound like so much fun.”

The positive reaction from the students was what educators were hoping for.

“I thought the overall experience was very interesting,” said Ava Camilo, a seventh-grader at Heritage Middle School. “I loved how everything was very formal and organized. Nothing was hectic. Everything was explained and transitioning from one thing to another was very smooth. It was cool to test all the different types of water and find out what was in each one and which type of water is safe to drink.”

Micah Lauer, a teacher at Heritage Middle School summed up the two-day event: “The Women in Math and Science event is a wonderful opportunity for students to experience science outside of the classroom and learn about career opportunities and higher education. The interactions between student participants and female scientists provided an invaluable experience.”