Sign up to receive breaking news and new edition alerts:
2017-08-18 / News

STEM programs plant opportunities for women, young females

Industry Reporter

Jenner Jenner “I was in [my advisor in undergrad’s] lab, working in the summer with another undergraduate - who was a guy - and [my advisor] said to the guy, ‘when you grow up and go out and become a successful scientist, you can donate money back to Penn State!’, and then he said to me, ‘Heather, when you grow up and marry someone, you can donate money back to Penn State!’” Heather Parizek said.

All women are familiar with ignorant instances like that - intentional or not - but especially those who are in STEM fields, like Parizek, senior instructor in mathematics and geosciences at Penn State DuBois.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Currently, there is a vast difference in the number of men in STEM fields compared to the number of women. Women hold almost half of the jobs in the U.S. economy but they fill less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey.

Girls attending the Math Options program were organized into groups for workshops on science, business and math. 
Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois Girls attending the Math Options program were organized into groups for workshops on science, business and math. Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois Beyond that, women with a STEM degree are less likely than men with a STEM degree to actually work in a STEM occupation, according to Economics & Statistics Administration in the United States Department of Commerce. Women with a STEM degree are more likely to go into work with education or healthcare.

But why is there such a divide if everyone gets taught the same curriculum in grade school? Programs around the state are trying to tie up this gender gap and encourage girls to be interested in STEM - and continue to stay interested - in hopes that they’ll enter a STEM field in their adult life. With that, it will become more uncommon for women to experience discrimination just because they’re in a male-dominated field - because it will no longer be driven by males.

Lola Smith, instructor of anatomy and physiology at Penn State DuBois, instructed girls in the Math Options program in a workshop that highlighted ways the study of anatomy can be used in forensic science. 
Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois Lola Smith, instructor of anatomy and physiology at Penn State DuBois, instructed girls in the Math Options program in a workshop that highlighted ways the study of anatomy can be used in forensic science. Photo courtesy of Penn State DuBois Penn State - DuBois

Parizek is the co-director of Math Options, an annual day-long program specifically for seventh grade girls. Math Options has been around for over 18 years and Parizek has been the co- director for 15 years.

This past May, Math Options saw over 120 girls come through the program and submerge themselves into the world of STEM. They start out all together in the morning and are put into groups of 12-15, where they’re forced to meet new people. They’ll have icebreakers to get them talking and then send them off to their first of three workshops. Workshop topics range from biology to business, geoscience to chemistry. Each workshop is about 45 minutes long.

“The presenters usually do something that relates to their subject area, so we pretty much let the presenters decide what they want to do. Most of our activities are pretty hands on,” Parizek said.

When thinking of a pipeline, there is usually a weak area. Seventh grade is the weak area of the women-in-STEM pipeline, where the girls interested in STEM begin to leak out and find other areas of interest.

“Seventh grade, for various social reasons - even if they are interested in STEM fields as an elementary school student - seems to be a big turning point. Either it’s not cool for a girl to be in science and math or [they think], ‘I’m not able to do it’ or ‘I don’t see it as a future career because I see all these women in non-STEM fields’,” Parizek said.

Most of the programs are run by women in STEM careers, so these young, impressionable girls have someone to look up to.

Parizek said that at the beginning and the end of the program, they encourage these girls to stick with their interest in STEM fields and tell them to look around at all the women who are there, because they were once in their shoes, and push them to look at all of the opportunities that are there for them.

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Recently, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (Pitt-Johnstown) took on a new coding initiative, called Code for the Commonwealth. The goal is to enhance digital literacy for workforce competitiveness, beginning in K-12 and beyond, according to its website. As part of the coding initiative, Pitt- Johnstown held 17 half-day, full-week summer coding camps for students in grades 2-8.

For the younger students attending the camps, they offer lego camps where they encourage the students to get in touch with their creative side, build their confidence and develop their critical thinking skills. For the slightly older students, grades 4-8, they offer camps that are more on computer, like video game programming and cyber security.

“We try to offer a variety of things to see what works and what our community might be interested in,” Roxanne Jenner, director of community outreach - coding initiatives at said. This is the first year that the camps have been held with the coding initiative. Kids from Somerset, Cambria and Bedford county attended the camps.

Jenner has a degree from Pitt- Johnstown in computer science and has spent more than 30 years working in the industry.

“Recently I started looking at how I can do something in our area to [ students] develop new skills,” Jenner said. “We don’t see a lot of coding or computer science in our schools right now.”

“I have two children, one will be a sophomore in college in this year and one will be a freshman, so I watched them through middle school and high school be very active in things that were available, like sports, but where’s the education? Where are the opportunities to learn more about computer science and coding?”

Jenner is also the owner/managing director of Bricks 4 Kidz in Somerset and Bedford. Bricks 4 Kidz offers “S.T.E.M. -based enrichment opportunities to kids using LEGO bricks,” according to its website.

“I am aware of the concerns and the movements to get more girls involved. When I first started Bricks 4 Kidz, I tried to do some girls-only camps and I didn’t get any to sign up,” Jenner said. “That could have been for multiple reasons.”

“I just think, and I’ve read research too, sometimes we have to start in schools for girls - where it’s not a choice they make, but it’s a program we offer that gets them interested. Once they see what it is, then they make that choice on their own and go to after-school programs and summer camps,” Jenner said.

Jenner said she would estimate that the boy-to-girl ratio in the coding camps are about 60-40, respectively.

“But overall, I think it’s a really good ratio for just getting started.”

Penn State - Altoona

“I always kind of grew up as a ‘tomboy’. I was always very interested in how things worked and how things were put together. I think it really came from my mom. She was a single parent, so she would be fixing the lawn mower or changing the oil in the car and things like that, and I was always around that,” Jordan Sell said.

Sell is an instructor of engineering at the Altoona branch of Penn State. After taking part in the Technology Student Association (TSA) in seventh grade, she knew that she wanted to be an engineer.

But like Parizek, she has also experienced some rude comments.

“I graduated from the Electro- Mechanical Engineering Technology (EMET) program at Penn State Altoona and I was the only female that graduated with that class,” Sell said.

Sell said that when she was working with equipments in the labs, she heard people say, “why is she here” and even heard, “why don’t you go make pretty art?”

“I definitely heard some snide remarks,” Sell said.

“But thankfully, we were all pretty thick skinned and got through it. It was really helpful that here on campus, when I came through, the coordinator was actually a female as well, so I always had someone to turn to.”

Recently, Penn State Altoona received start-up funding for a STEM Program for young women.

Through a year-long process, students will be exposed to the various aspects and forms of software development. They will learn how coding is becoming an essential skill for professionals working in many STEM fields, according to a release from Penn State.

The program will provide opportunities to female middle- and high-school students to learn how to write code through various means, from robotics to 3D virtual environments.

“Computer science also sees a dip in female enrollment, just like engineering does right now. Coding is an easier transition into the STEM fields for females, because they can work on the computers and not have the stigma of being in a STEM field. It can be a little less scary at first,” Sell said.

Sell believes that getting young females involved in STEM opportunities from a young age and breaking gender stereotypes is key to having more women in STEM careers.

“I think that [gender] bias starts at a much younger age and we can’t change those biases in high school or in college. They start in kindergarten. You know, at a young girl’s birthday party, they’re giving her dolls and Barbies, where the boys are getting Legos. Right there, at that point, we are starting the bias of little boys should build and girls should be emerged in fashion and be pretty.”

“I think getting them involved early is the only way that we’re ever going to erase this stigma,” Sell said. .

Return to top

Sign up for Biz Alerts

Email Marketing You Can Trust