MOREHEAD CITY — In addition to abundant marine and fisheries researchers, Carteret could soon be home to a growing number of young, female scientists.
Invite-a-Scientist programs are taking off in elementary and middle school classrooms, with the goal of children getting to talk to professionals about science, and witness the importance of the sciences and mathematics as gender-neutral career fields, said Heather Heenehan, Duke University Marine Science PhD candidate and Huffington Post contributor.
Through her work with Duke and the Invite-a-Scientist program, Ms. Heenehan has been able to speak with local classrooms on her work and expose children to a “new” kind of professional – the female scientist.
Her most recent visit to Morehead Middle School came in the midst of a special anniversary for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions, Ada Lovelace Day, designed to promote and discuss female STEM notables.
Born the only child of an English poet, Ada Lovelace was a 19th century writer and mathematician. She studied the math capabilities of the brain, picked apart the early Analytical Engine and wrote the world’s first algorithm for a machine.
Ms. Lovelace was a scholar, thinker and innovator, and yet because of her gender, her name was long forgotten by the scientific community – until 2009.
Oct. 15 marked the fifth annual Ada Lovelace Day. Launched by United Kingdom journalist Suw Charman-Anderson in October 2009, the yearly celebration seeks to increase the presence of female STEM professionals in media, academics and popular culture, according to the event’s website.
The celebration is a 50-hour marathon event in which contributors can add well-researched articles on women in STEM to the pages of Wikipedia, the online world’s largest, free encyclopedia.
This year, Ada Lovelace Day had a major U.S. partner. Students and teachers from Rhode Island’s Brown University contributed to the effort by hosting a simultaneous Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, aiming to upgrade entries on female STEM pioneers and industry professionals.
But for Mr. Charman-Anderson, Ada Lovelace Day is not about changing the pages of Wikipedia, but beginning a running discourse on the gender inequalities in STEM professions – a valuable conversation, according to James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition.
“We don’t think of diversity as an afterthought, but as a central aspect of expanding the STEM pipeline by investing in under represented populations,” Mr. Brown said.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2011, women only made up 25 percent of the STEM workforce.
STEM is a crucial to the fundamentals of technological and financial advancement, according to the coalition.
The nation’s top 10 bachelors degrees with the highest median incomes are all STEM fields, according to the organization.
Here in Carteret County, the scientific community has a healthy female population, said Kerry Irish, communications specialist at UNC Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, located in Morehead City.
“At IMS we are least 50/50 in terms of student male to female ratios, if not more heavily skewed towards women,” Ms. Irish said. “Marine sciences do get to see a lot more women in undergraduate and graduate programs, compared to other industries.”
Ms. Irish said that while that is not the norm for other STEM disciplines, the local programs are pleased to receive increased female interest and benefit from diversity amongst intellectuals.
Increasing diversity within STEM fields serves as a primary goal for encouraging women into sciences and mathematics, according to Stacey DelVecchio, president of the national group Society of Women Engineers.
“Part of our mission is to ensure that people value diversity in the industry,” said Ms. DelVecchio. “Fifty percent of degrees are attained by women, but not 50 percent of degrees in engineering. That’s just a whole segment of the population we aren’t hearing from, who aren’t getting to contribute.”
Mr. Brown agreed, noting that increasing STEM professionals from historically under represented groups lends to greater industry advances.
“Given that brainpower is distributed equally across the American landscape, we want to make sure we are drawing from as many corners of our nation as possible to identify the innovators of the future,” he said.
Seeking out women for the sciences has its challenges, however, said Ms. Heenehan.
She said young girls aren’t encouraged into the field by popular images of scientist.
“A major barrier is getting girls to see themselves as scientists,” Ms. Heenehan said. “In their brain a scientist is a man in a white lab coat with crazy hair. When I visit, girls can see that scientist look like them, like strong, independent, intelligent women.”
Ms. Heenehan spends time traveling local elementary schools speaking with children about the sciences and the work she does with marine life and coastal conservation. She said she wear purple pants to classes to promote images of STEM professionals as fun, feminine individuals.
Ms. Heenehan said the conversation on STEM fields needed to change in order to encourage female participation.
“When we think about what engineering is, we don’t think about knitting and cooking – things that girls might like, but those things are engineering. They are making, creating, problem solving. We don’t acknowledge that these things lead directly toward STEM, but they do,” she said.
Ms. DelVecchio agrees.
“Engineering doesn’t sound interesting the way we message it. People don’t find things like civil engineering exciting,” she said. “We’ve got to change the conversation, talk about building roads, accessing water – everyone is interested in that. Girls get excited about that and that is what civil engineering is.”
Encouraging girls into STEM is crucial at the classroom level, as well, said Ms. Heenehan, who noted that excellent teachers fueled her ambitions as an aspiring scientist.
“It starts there, with teachers getting people, not just girls, excited about science,” she said.
Kelly Riley, technology teacher and facilitator at Tiller School in Beaufort, a charter school, said that successful STEM learning requires a hands-on approach from educators.
“STEM educators must challenge themselves to raise the bar and constantly critique the activities and experiences they are providing their students,” Ms. Riley said.
She also serves as sponsor to the Environmental Ambassadors Club at Tiller, allowing children opportunities outside the classroom to learn about life sciences.
Ms. Riley said that her experiences teaching have been positive, seeing largely equal gender interest in the sciences.
Executive Director of Tiller School Virginia Jones said that STEM is showing signs of picking up momentum in the public system.
“Tiller School has developed unique partnerships with our local scientific community – Duke and UNC Marine Labs and the N.C. Coastal Federation,” (an environmental organization based in Ocean), Ms. Jones said. “We offer real opportunities to explore current scientific issues and to develop solutions.”
Ms. Riley said she worries the financial pressure education systems face could cut into resources devoted to fostering early STEM learning and programs that encourage girls into those fields.
Keeping girls interested in pursuing and teaching higher-level education in STEM programs is crucial to increasing gender equalities said Ms. Irish.
“(IMS) has lot of female students, but we are not seeing that on the faculty level,” she said.
IMS employs eight male faculty members and two female, according to Ms. Irish.
Sara Colman, IMS graduate student, said she too notices the gender inequalities in higher education, as well.
“I like to think that in 2013, traditional gender roles don’t really matter,” Ms. Colman said. “The only time a divide in genders that is noticeable is at national meetings. While more and more women are entering into STEM fields, it seems that higher positions are often held by men, as most PhD professors are men.”
Ms. DelVecchio said that while she sees a greater number of male engineering executives, their female counterparts are both effective and well respected.
The introduction of more females at the university level is a stepping stone to gender equality in the field and executive positions, she said.
“Female professors impact female students. They enable an industry perception that says ‘women can do this, too,’ ” Ms. DelVecchio said.
Contributions by people of all genders and ethnicities allows for an environment conducive to progress, says IMS research associate professor Steve Fegley.
“Why would our society want to limit our ability to advance in research, teaching and application of STEM to half of our population based solely on gender given how important technology and resolving critical environmental problems will be to our future?” Mr. Fegley said.
He said marine sciences programs tend to largely attract more female than male interest now, but are not diverse in terms of racial and ethnic representation.
Ms. Colman said that while she finds her field largely inclusive of females, the important industry standard should be science, rather than gender.
“I think all scientist want to be judged on the quality of their work,” Ms. Colman said.
Contact Jackie Starkey at 726-7081, ext. 232; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.