SciTech

Texas girls in STEM classes share dreams of medicine, space

This photo taken April 9, 2019, shows, Craig Middle School eighth-graders venting their frustration as their solution in the "Algebra Escape Room" competition. The math contest for advanced students was held at the Abilene Independent School District headquarters in Abilene, Texas.
This photo taken April 9, 2019, shows, Craig Middle School eighth-graders venting their frustration as their solution in the "Algebra Escape Room" competition. The math contest for advanced students was held at the Abilene Independent School District headquarters in Abilene, Texas. Ronald W. Erdrich

A city in the sky is nearly impossible.

How would water work? How would its people eliminate waste? What about food or simply not crashing to the ground under the constant force of gravity?

The Abilene Reporter-News reports technology doesn't have answers to these questions — if it ever will — but a teacher at Wylie Junior High School in Abilene, Luke Hurst, still asked his Coding, Gaming, Robotics and Innovation classes to envision such a place.

Enter Kyla Paterson.

The incoming Wylie High School freshman spearheaded a group of students that designed such a dreamscape last school year.

"When she gets on Tinkercad (a computer-assisted design program), I can't keep up with her," classmate Alan Roberts said.

"No one can," CGRI student Chase Johnson added.

Alan and Chase grouped with Kyla for the project, which earned the highest score in Hurst's classes.

Why? Chase said the project called for a floating city design. Every other group's project had the city touching ground. Theirs was floating, though. Waterfalls even ran off the edge of the city just to prove there was nothing underneath.

All Kyla's work in design. She just dreamed bigger than her classmates

And the water collection? Kyla came up with an interesting solution.

"It uses the water molecules in the clouds," she said. "The city separates the water for drinking and for plants (for food)."

Hurst's CGRI class isn't just creating floating cities. It's essentially a class period filled with topics that might catch any type of student in its web.

They build robots, write video games and tell machines to do something with the stomp of a foot. In a perfect world, there would be hundreds of Kyla Patersons matching wits against hundreds of boys her age.

But this isn't a perfect world. And Kyla was practically by herself.

It's a microcosm of a national trend that has led to a plethora of research studies on reaching young girls before they bail out on science and math careers.

Last year, Wylie Junior High enrollment was lopsided: 70 boys and two girls. Hurst, though, knows there are plenty of ways to reach girls who are looking to get involved in video game design or robotics or any of the problem-solving sciences.

It'll just take time and patience, he said.

"We might have to have some sort of after-school club or go to an all-girls class," he said. "Right now, the best thing to do is to group them together. There's a stigma in middle school that you have to break."

With Kyla, he fostered her natural sense of competition, he said. She simply had to put her classmates in their place.

"This class being full of guys, I (wanted) to knock their egos down a bit," Kyla said with a wry smile. "Whenever we're in gym, the boys always pass to each other. Not to the girls. So I (wanted) to show them we're smart."

Some years' enrollments are also better than others, though it hasn't ever been the 50-50 split Hurst wants to see. He's hoping a growing presence of engineering classes in Wylie junior high schools will help address the lack of diversity among his students.

"I started this with one class period," Hurst said. That was in 2016. Last year, he taught four. He couldn't teach five — he had to coach junior high football, baseball and track.

This coming year, Hurst is not coaching and has pushed the CGRI program to six total periods — three at each of Wylie's two junior high schools — in hopes of finding even more students and helping them understand what their future could look like in a STEM field.

Why is there a national, and international, push to involve more women and girls in science, technology, engineering and math?

The four subjects are critical to answering the world's top problems, be they climate change, overpopulation or starvation across the planet, among others. Tricia Berry, of the Texas Girls Collaborative Project and an engineering professor at the University of Texas, said the ideas developed by women, along with other underrepresented minorities, would go a long way to solving those issues.

"If we do not have women at the table helping to design products, helping to explore solutions, tackling the challenges we have in our world, we're not going to get the best solutions," Berry said. "We're missing the talent that's not contributing to those main challenges we have in our world."

The focus on recruiting women into engineering fields began in the 1970s, Berry said. It kicked into high gear in the '80s and early '90s, though, with targeted efforts making a little progress.

But stereotypes persist, she said.

For example, young students sometimes still picture the old, white, geeky, male engineer — the mad scientist.

"Middle school girls don't want to be seen as geeky," Berry said. "They lose the excitement and mystery that comes with math and science. We're not engaging them in the hands-on problem solving we know will get them excited."

Women who excel at math and science, research shows, don't necessarily study those subjects in college and pursue them in the workforce.

Meanwhile, Berry said, boys who are good at math and science head into STEM careers.

"We do not do a good job showcasing how verbal skills, communication skills, people skills are critically important in the STEM fields," Berry said. "If we told a different story, we may be able to get to them before they go in a different direction."

It might not be a city in the sky, but Julie Webster did help put a probe in space.

Webster, operations team manager for the Cassini probe that spent 20 years orbiting and studying Saturn and its moons, said the secret to attracting more women to STEM careers is to get them when they're Kyla Paterson's age.

"What happens is we lose the women in middle school," Webster said during a March visit to McMurry University, where a group of students dedicated a monument to Cassini.

"Girls get interested in boys, boys get interested in girls, girls don't want to show they're smarter than the boys, so they start dropping out of the maths," Webster said.

Webster almost didn't pursue this life that saw her, among many other accomplishments, share in winning an Emmy Award for Cassini's final mission in 2017.

Nope, this Texas girl wanted to go into trucking.

She was dead set on skipping college and settling into a career behind the wheel, she said. But her father had other ideas. And he didn't take no for an answer.

"When people ask me how I got into NASA, I didn't get into NASA," she said. "I thought I wanted to drive (a) truck, but my father said, 'You will not drive truck. You will go to college.' I was smart: class valedictorian, National Merit Scholar. I kind of randomly chose chemistry because I liked the chemistry lab. So, I graduated chemistry."

After a little extra school to earn a master's degree in mechanical engineering, Webster found herself bouncing around many jobs. After about 10 years, and 10 different careers, she was recruited to a civilian job at Vandenberg Air Force Base (California) and a position with the company that would become Lockheed Martin.

There, she started working with rockets and missiles — "so far afield from what my education is in," she said.

That work brought her into the Magellan project, the precursor to Cassini. She found herself in a strange position, where her coworkers weren't as skilled as she was.

"The conductors were not doing the procedure right, so I pushed them out of the way and said, 'Let me show you how I really meant this to be,' " she said. "I was the first woman test conductor. ... and after that it just kind of blossomed."

Webster stuck around Cassini for the probe's entire lifespan. ("I forgot to train anybody to replace me," she said with a laugh.) As new ideas and new missions came up, she would be responsible for a team making sure the probe was able to collect the data and get it back to Earth.

While Webster sees the middle school level as the prime target, Jason Treadway believes STEM interventions should happen earlier.

Elementary students should receive more guidance linked to future pathways, said Treadway, director of the STEM Institute at the Dallas County Community College District.

But elementary teachers, Treadway says, are generalists. So they'll need help in the classroom to really push young girls, especially, to be STEM enthusiasts.

The emphasis should be on showcasing how fun STEM can be rather than focusing on theory, he said.

Treadway, who holds a Ph.D. in structural engineering, said his own pathway mirrors this idea. Studying why something works, or doesn't work, wasn't anywhere near as interesting as trying and doing.

Girls such as Kyla Paterson also need women role models in STEM. Like Webster, or Katie Bouman, a post-doctorate computer scientist who helped reveal the first image of a black hole in April.

The black hole image was hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy this century. But Bouman's role was immediately reduced in favor of propping up her male coworkers.

Shortly after an image of her, excited at her computer as the black hole began to appear on her screen, was posted to social media, comments indicated it was her male coworkers who did the work.

"Within an hour of the tweets coming out, people said she didn't do the work," said Marc Zimmer, a chemistry professor at Connecticut College. "That it was actually a male coworker. People immediately start attacking. There were (a number of) new Twitter accounts based on her name right away, representing her both in positive and negative ways.

"It just shows we have a long way to go. And she looks so happy in that picture."

Zimmer leads Connecticut College's Science Leaders Program, which seeks to increase the number of women and underrepresented students graduating with a degree in the sciences.

He's also written a book, set to be published in 2020, titled "The State of Science — Good Science, Bad Science, Old Science, New Science." In it, Zimmer devoted an entire chapter to the "inequities that women in STEM face."

He supports making sure women, especially at younger ages, have their role models to positively influence their choices and support them indirectly in their intentions.

"If we're talking about middle school, it's about having the role models," he said. "We need to see more women scientists in movies. Most people probably don't even recognize famous scientists walking around. So, having Nobel laureates on 'The Big Bang Theory' is important. But instead of having the image of an Einstein- type character, maybe we should have a young, relatable woman."

Once they're hooked and in, it's going to be about helping them build themselves up through networking, according to research by Diana Bilimoria, who studies organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Women in biosciences are better at taking care of each other, she said. Where it's weak is in computer science, engineering and manufacturing, where women have yet to make more high-profile inroads.

It's more unconscious than overt, Bilimoria said. It's likely older women aren't directly telling young girls and women not to pursue these areas of study and, as a result, careers.

Changing the culture within these areas should be the target now, she said.

"We need to do better developing networks for women, making sponsorship for women," Bilimoria said. "When this happens it means the company takes ownership of development and careers of the employees."

Emery Heflin just wants to soar. Earthbound with the rest of her fellow humans, she's hoping for a future as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

The Abilene High School freshman is already well on her way to making it happen. She's been to the Air Force Academy twice while in middle school and has the benefit of a former fighter pilot in her family.

But her connections and experiences are only part of the story. She still has to do the work. And she knows it.

"I don't feel pressured," she said. "I feel motivated to do well in school. I don't really have a lot of free time outside of school, but I do what I can to make the best grades. I want a solid rank in high school, so I can't see myself losing interest in math."

Right in her prime make-it-or-break-it years, according to research, Emery said she's found the best, most supportive friends to surround herself with. These people, she said, encourage her instead of questioning her decisions when it comes to doing well in school.

A few of them gathered in April for Craig Middle School teacher Shelly Brotherton's annual "Algebra Escape Room" for advanced math students.

First step to escape: They each shared their plans for the future. Each included, in some way, a science career such as Emery's choice.

Justine Martinez said she wants to pursue a career as an emergency room physician. Alexis Dalton hopes to find success as an anesthesiologist.

"Sometimes it can be a little stressful," Justine said.

"There's a lot of pressure on us because we are girls," Alexis said. "We don't have the same expectations as the guys."

Despite the stress and the pressure, these two young women said they're bound and determined not to let anyone derail their ambitions.

Especially, Justine said, the boys.

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Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, http://www.reporternews.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Abilene Reporter-News

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