STEM, The White House and the Change We Need Now

Me with Kumar Garg, Senior Policy Analyst for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Each month the White House convenes groups monthly as “Champions for Change” – a chance for a diverse cross-section of stakeholders to come together with policy makers and talk about what the issues are, what’s working – and where we need to go from here.

12 Champions for Change.

Last week I was invited to be a “notable guest” at a Champions for Change convening held by the Office of Public Engagement and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition to recognizing a dozen “Champions for Change” – dynamic teachers, scientists, researchers and students hard at work engaging girls and women in science and technology – the convening asked the 150 or so attendees to spend the afternoon chewing on three topics:

1)      changing the image of women and girls in STEM

2)      mentoring

3)      workforce development.

The Champions have written some terrific blogs – each with insights worth checking out.

I had the chance to be in the session on changing the image of women and girls in STEM. The group included representatives from education companies and mining companies; teachers at schools and district CEOs; professional science societies and media mavens; nonprofit organizations and education activists.

Talking tech during the breakout session.

Here are the ideas I left the conversation thinking about:

We need to disaggregate data – and generalizations – about girls and women and STEM. The issues are not the same for a groups or at all times. The issues of engaging and supporting young girls to develop fluency with science thinking are different than issues of PhD candidates dropping out before completing their doctorates. At Project Exploration African American girls are the MOST likely to be engaged in our programs and the least likely to have ongoing opportunities to stay involved with STEM once they get hooked. For our girls, interest isn’t the issue – opportunity is. For Caucasian girls in some of my colleagues’ programs in suburban, more affluent schools, social stigmas may keep them from even exploring if they have an interest in science.

In the breakout group.

We need to be less about large-scale science “competitions” (many of which are supported by critically important corporations) and more about science thinking and learning by doing. (Thanks toLucy Friedman for raising this issue).Focusing on competition in science can turn off large numbers of students with families and cultural backgrounds that do not focus on individual or team achievement and also can disengage girls who are more interested in working in groups in non-competitive settings. Project Exploration lets students’ progress into programs that require increasing competence based on their interests; we have fun and play games but science learning for us is about individual and group experiences, communication and reflection.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, welcoming the convening.

We need to show more of the images of girls and women we know are involved with – and love – STEM.Mainstream media images of women in science show women who are often one-dimensional and, if they’re really “smart” often socially inept. In fact, we should be focusing on highlighting girls as INTERESTED in STEM rather than continuing to frame the issue in terms of girls NOT being interested in STEM. Further more, we should not be talking about science as the “end.” Science is not – and cannot be simply about “science for science’s sake.” Science opens doors onto observational and experiential adventure – and enables girls to make discoveries about the world around them as well as themselves. If anyone needs images, or narratives of girls in STEM who learn it, love it and use it – even if they decide NOT to be scientists – Project Exploration has these in spades.

Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy.

Finally, we need to stop defining the issue of STEM and girls’ participation in terms of deficits in “teacher preparation” and (or vs. depending on who is speaking) “parent engagement.” In my opinion we need to reframe the entire discussion in 21st century terms: young people have access to any information they want at any time. The real questions are 1) what is the role of an adult in a young person’s life? 2) what are the experiences worth having to support girls’ to develop fluency with the skills STEM affords? 3) how should adults organize themselves around young people’s development to ensure students get – and can stay – involved with STEM pathways throughout their lives? At Project Exploration these are our defining questions. As we search for the answers we’re coming up with some ideas about the real change we need now for girls and STEM.

Three champions for change! Eileen Sweeney (Project Exploration Board member ermerita), Motorola Mobility, me and Anita Krishnamurthi, After School Alliance.
NOTE: This blog was also posted on the Project Exploration blog.

One response to “STEM, The White House and the Change We Need Now

  1. I love this post and the ideas presented within. I wholeheartedly agree with the points made. Young ladies need to interact with women who are passionate about STEM so they can see these women shatter the stereotypes!

    I work with a girls engineering camp at the University of Illinois. I implemented and ran the Bioengineering camp and am moving on to assist with a new Environmental Engineering camp. What we discovered, when it comes to recruiting young ladies to the camp, for African American girls, we emphasized what the girl could contribute to her community via engineering. For Latinas, the emphasis was on the family. These subtle differences helped increase our enrollment of minorities in the camp.

    I am paying “blog calls” to each @scio12 attendee to say “Hi” and give your blog a shoutout on twitter (I’m @sciencegoddess). I look forward to meeting you in a few weeks!

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