Engineering has long been a male-dominated profession, and the most recent census data shows females comprised only 27 percent of those in STEM careers even though they made up nearly half of the U.S. workforce.
One Immaculate Conception School parent is working to change this with the help of a grant from the American Association of University Women.
On Nov. 12-13 Saint Louis University computer science assistant professor Kate Holdener and two SLU students used this grant to host a workshop for ICS middle school girls (her children are not included in this demographic).
The students built a Raspberry Pi computer and used it to customize their very own holiday light display.
“It is a little pocket-sized computer and it’s made for education, so it’s perfect for middle school,” Holdener said of Raspberry Pi, later adding, “The lights are connected to the computer. We program the computer, run the program and it does the light display.”
For the second part of the grant, Holdener’s colleague will be spearheading an engineering day at SLU for high school students.
While it is important to reach older age groups, Holdener said hosting such workshops for younger students can help make the number of women in STEM compared to the larger workforce more proportionate.
“A lot of research points to we need to encourage girls earlier because a lot of times by the time they get to high school they are not interested in technical careers,” she explained. “So, the thinking is that if we reach out to them earlier, maybe when they’re more accepting of the (STEM) possibilities, then that would make more of an impact.”
Gender stereotypes, social expectations and a lack of female representation in STEM fields are all potential reasons for the small number of girls choosing STEM tracks. According to a Microsoft survey of girls in Europe, girls begin to lose interest around age 11.
By having two SLU students, Grace Lin and Colleen Wade, help lead the workshop, Holdener said she hoped to show the middle schoolers that females are currently moving toward the profession, and if Lin and Wade can do it, so can they.
“The thinking there was that these middle school students will be better able to relate to them than me because they’re younger,” Holdener said. “They’re younger, so that makes them cool.”
Progress is slowly being made when it comes to this topic. For example, in 1970, women made up just 8 percent of STEM workers while they comprised 38 percent of the U.S. workforce.
In 2019, these figures increased to 27 percent and 48 percent, respectively.
While she acknowledges this has gotten better, Holdener said there is still a long way to go.
“That’s why we’re doing this, to encourage them to go and study engineering and that way it will eventually balance out,” she said.
Holdener said there is much to be gained by having more women in the field.
“You get different opinions and different viewpoints, and from that you get richer ideas,” Holdener said.
To see images of the light designs the girls took, as well as their finished computers, visit ICS’s Facebook page.