Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are STEM Programs Effective?

Since graduate school, when the issues facing women in STEM first became apparent to me, I’ve been involved in several programs that seek to increase the number of women in STEM majors and career fields; most of these programs focus on K12 female students.  Some of these programs have national reputations, such as ExpandingYour Horizons, while others are regional, such as Girls Go Tech or Techbridge.  Still others are local one-off events, such as when female scientists participate on conference panels, gather in focus groups, or visit classrooms.  Though there is a national need to promote STEM to young women and many many organizations are conducting programs to do so, I wonder if these programs are working and if they really are making any difference at all.

I wonder this because yet another report about the lack of women in STEM fields has been released.
Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT) and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) recently conducted a pilot assessment of the status of women in the science, technology and innovation (STI) and information and communication technology (ICT) sectors in six countries (including the USA) and one region.  It was reported that “overall, countries … have failed to include women to an equal extent in the knowledge economy — and in many cases, their inclusion is negligible…. It also shows that few countries are collecting consistent gender data in any of these areas, leaving an evidence vacuum in crafting STI and knowledge society policies.” (So much for those binders full of women, huh?) The results of this report were not surprising to me at all … because it’s the same story I’ve been hearing my entire scientific career.  Why aren’t STEM programs working?

Perhaps STEM programs aren’t encompassing all of the parts in the whole picture.  The WISAT/OWSD assessment showed that some particular policies can further women in STEM/STI/ICT careers and that these policies should require a “combination of actions in education, economic status, social status and health.”  Countries with these policies have “empowerment factors [that] include higher economic status, greater roles in government and politics and access to resources.”  Brazil ranked the highest of the six countries and regions, strongly supporting women in the workforce and providing stable funding for education and research.  South Africa also ranked very high in terms of women in STEM careers (highest percentage of female members of a national science academy in the study) and female elected and appointed officials (45%). This really pales in comparison to the United States, where we (just in 2012) achieved 20% female participation in the US Senate. Is there a link between funding levels or the number of female elected officials and the number of women in STEM fields? Perhaps.  A recent post in the Planetary Exploration Newsletter indicated that we may lose a generation of scientists as a result of decreased NASA funding for the planetary sciences.  I’ll address more of this aspect in a later post.

I’ve always wondered what would be the most effective way to get K12 girls (and boys) interested in STEM.  One (maybe-not-so-crazy) idea is to obtain celebrity endorsements, which have been proven to increase product sales by 4%. I’m not talking about Danica McKellar (BS, Math, UCLA), Mayim Bialik (PhD, Neuroscience, UCLA), or Brian May (PhD, Astrophysics, Imperial College), who are successful both academically and professionally but who may not be recognizable. I’m talking the Biebs or Taylor Swift, celebrities with millions of fans. Just imagine how either of these superstars could influence countless young STEM-wannabes if they tweeted just a few thoughts about how cool math and science are. Crazy? Maybe. But it might be worth a try.