STEM professionals
Female STEM professionals prepare for a panel discussion that aired live on PBS on September 9, 2020 as part of the Da Vinci Science Center's annual Women in Science and Engineering Forum.

By Erica Jaros

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields are a substantial part of the current economy and represent some of the fastest growing industries, yet according to the American Association of University Women, women make up just over a quarter of the STEM workforce.

To change that, libraries and museums are developing programs to encourage more young women to pursue and remain in STEM careers.

Arizona State University partnered with the University of Michigan using an IMLS National Leadership Grant for Libraries to bring the CompuGirls program to local libraries in Arizona.

CompuGirls is a culturally responsive technology program founded in 2007 serving girls of color (grades 8-12) from under-resourced areas.

“The goal of the program is to engage girls in STEM activities that promote computational thinking,” said Patricia Garcia, assistant professor, University of Michigan. “However, what sets us apart from other programs is that we place an equal emphasis on experiences that nurture a positive self-concept among girls of color through asset-based activities that highlight their existing strengths.”

The program was initially implemented in partnership with local schools, but Garcia explained that as the program grew, schools needed support from community organizations. At that point they started to explore what role public libraries could play.

“The grant has helped us refine and implement the model in collaboration with librarians,” said Garcia. “We wanted it to be an authentic, meaningfully implemented program, not just a site.”

They trained librarians and helped them collaborate with technology teachers to develop curriculum, create makerspaces, and utilize college students to assist in running the program. Garcia knew that to be successful it would need to be something libraries could run on their own.

Camille Schrier
Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020, performing her winning science demonstration 'catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide' for a virtual audience of students at the Da Vinci Science Center's Women in Science and Engineering event

As the program evolves, they are looking at how to adjust the curriculum to implement the program in rural areas. Garcia explained that there are unique challenges to this type of expansion such as no internet, limited availability of public transportation, or distance from universities. Garcia and others with the program are working with local librarians to figure out how to have the same activities “unplugged”.

“These new collaborations have helped us learn about a whole new set of factors to consider within rural contexts,” Garcia said. “We hope these new partnerships continue past the term of the grant and that we can work together to support girls of color be successful in STEM. Our goal is for the program to be used at libraries all over the United States.”

Supporting STEM programs isn’t limited to students. Women already established in STEM careers are also seeking out ways to stay engaged as a community.

“Practicing female STEM professionals need support to persist in their careers,” said Karen Knecht, director of education at the Da Vinci Science Center.  “They want to be inspired by other women, hear their stories, share their own stories, and be there for one another to support advancement and fulfillment in their careers.”

In 2014, Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania hosted a meeting on the Cedar Crest College campus for female STEM professionals to explore how they could help the center engage girls in STEM programming.

“We expected 25-30 women, and over 60 attended,” said Knecht. “The word spread quickly, and soon over 400 women were on our email distribution list.”

From that experience they developed the Women in Science and Engineering Initiative (WISE), a program dedicated to supporting young women in STEM education, mentorship programs, and networking events for women working in STEM fields.

“Highlighting these experiences through the WISE Network helps women and girls understand that STEM belongs everywhere that women are, and that women belong in STEM,” said Knecht. “The Network allows women to dialog about issues that are important to them and creates a support network that gives them the confidence to be the next woman to make history in STEM.”

A story that has resonated with Knecht is that of Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020, who was the first to win the competition using a science experiment as her talent.  Knecht recounted that despite opposition to considering science a talent, Schrier insisted demonstrating science experiments and encouraging young girls to pursue science was a talent to be proud of!

As the program grew, it was challenged in developing the right programming opportunities to offer to members of the WISE Network to keep them engaged. In 2017 they received a Museums for America grant from IMLS to conduct a research study focused on Building a Community Ecosystem to Support Women in Science and Engineering.

STEM professionals
Female STEM professionals prepare for a panel discussion that aired live on PBS on September 9, 2020 as part of the Da Vinci Science Center's annual Women in Science and Engineering Forum.

“The IMLS funding provided support for research to learn how to best support women and girls at every step along the pathway to a STEM career and once they are in those careers,” said Knecht. “At this pivotal moment for STEM Education and advancing Women in Science and Engineering, the IMLS grant allowed us to capture diverse voices through surveys and focus groups with women, college students, and K-12 students.”

This feedback helped them increase their impact by advertising the programs and content areas of greatest interest to engage more women and girls in the programs.

IMLS funding also helped the center navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with virtual WISE events, including partnering with PBS to televise their annual WISE Forum panel with prestigious panelists, including Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020, and more recently hosting a virtual program on “Successfully Navigating the Pandemic:  Perspectives from Female Leaders in STEM and Your Inspiring Success Stories.”

“Supporting aspiring and practicing STEM professionals is critical to building the STEM pipeline,” said Knecht. “As science centers, we have an important role to play both attracting girls to STEM careers and helping to retain women in those careers.  Mentors and role models are essential for young girls and also important as women advance in their careers.”

National Leadership Grants for Libraries