Taking the Road Less Traveled

Ali Lenger
Newsletter Issue: 
May 2016

Crowd of women raising hands at a lecture presentation
Young women eagerly learn about STEM career opportunities at the “Taking the Road Less Traveled” Conference. 
Photo credit: WISE.

In 2016, you wouldn’t think that increasing diversity in STEM fields would still be such a large issue. But, in the workforce, only 13% of engineering positions, and 25% of those in computer and mathematical sciences are held by women.

Taking the Road Less Traveled are career exploration events aimed at increasing awareness of career opportunities for girls in STEM fields. The sessions, sponsored by the Women in Science and Engineering Program, or WISE at Iowa State University, are held multiple times a year for girls in 8th to 10th grade. The goal of the event is to help young students realize how they can apply lessons from the classroom to real-life careers. Lora Leigh Chrystal, Director of WISE, provided insight about this event and the lack of women in STEM careers.

“The purpose of the program to provide kids an opportunity to explore STEM by having female role models deliver the content,” said Chrystal. “We’re hoping that they realize that the field of STEM is so broad. We talk a lot about the messaging with our presenters to make sure that they are making that connection about (how) they apply the classwork that they’re in now and what that might look like going through college, what the workforce really looks like.”

The events include a range of activities including career sessions in STEM fields such as engineering, computer science, and environmental science.  The exposure to learning from women role models about what job opportunities are possible in STEM fields, is an important factor.

“Presenters that had attended found a lot comfort in the fact that there were so many other girls interested in STEM,” said Chrystal. “The role modeling piece was huge. They had no idea that there were women engineers out there doing something that they were so interested in.”

Chrystal explained the need to overcome conditioned ways in how boys and girls are taught. She has found for example, that in many experiences with STEM-related activities, girls feel the need to be “smart” or excel in math and science to be able to participate. Boys don’t seem to get the same message.  Secondly, parents can be important contributors to the discovery process for their children. They can help their children learn more about STEM fields by enrolling them in after school activities or in STEM-based summer camps.  Employers can also play a role through hiring.  Girls need to be able to see themselves as employees in companies.

“They need to look around and see who’s at the table, and see if their company and the people making the decisions are representative of the people who work for them and the people that they’re serving,” said Chrystal. “Diversity actually helps the bottom line.”

Dr. Raj Raman, Professor of Engineering at ISU’s Biological Systems Engineering and the Education Co-project Director of CenUSA Bioenergy, has been working to increase the amount of women enrolled in STEM through CenUSA’s internship and educational programs. Last year, eight women were enrolled into the program.  The internships provide a valuable experience in all areas of bioenergy including: feedstock development, field-level sustainability, logistics, policy-Level sustainability, feedstock conversion and economics, markets and distribution, health and safety, and commercialization.

CenUSA’s female interns have gone on to enroll in grad school or pursue STEM-related careers after completing their internships.

For younger audiences, CenUSA’s C6 Biofarm program offers STEM workshops for students in elementary and middle school. Workshops, including hands-on activities, are held at various locations from schools to conferences to state fairs, teaching young people about career opportunities in STEM fields.

Overall, the stigma that has held women back from STEM careers is being broken down slowly by groups like WISE and CenUSA, who are educating and encouraging younger generations of girls and women to pursue their full range of talents.